While not a direct quote, “The system will produce exactly what it should produce” was the basic mantra of Total Quality Management guru, W. Edwards Deming. He also proposed that if we want to change the output of a system, we need to change the system itself. And, he’s right.
For those that don’t know, Deming was credited with turning around the Japanese auto industry in the 1980s. He encouraged business leaders to look at their organizations as complex systems that impact everything employees do. And, when we do this, we find that behavior becomes pretty predictable. In its simplest form we will see performance that either falls within a range of “normal” or that falls outside a range of normal in either a good way or bad way. It is these exceptions or outliers that usually grab our attention.
Most often we respond to the negative outliers, reacting to events that we would have preferred not to occur. To our credit, we often try to learn from these incidents so they don’t happen again. A typical response is to perform a “root cause” analysis which, while well-intended, often results in finger-pointing and blame. (For this reason, I still prefer an assessment of contributing factors such as 5-WHY). In contrast, if we embark on such assessments to make the proper changes to the system, we will in effect raise the standard and tighten the range of normal, thus eliminating some potential for outliers. The result should be a systemic process change. Let’s call this a “leading indicator” that if performed regularly will prevent the outliers we want to prevent.
As business leaders we are responsible for the parameters of the work system that impact behavior. In fact, Deming often claimed that management’s job is to optimize the system. He stressed [If you] “improve quality, you improve production and safety” (emphasis added). And, this is exactly what the Japanese auto industry experienced when implementing systemic “statistical process control” strategies (a method of Total Quality Management) to improve their businesses.
I had the pleasure of witnessing this first-hand when I toured the GM/Toyota Joint Venture in Fremont, CA called “NUMMI” before the Tesla Auto company took over the plant. And, it was a well-oiled sight to see. What’s more, employees enjoyed working there. Huge protests occurred when NUMMI was shut-down, despite the fact that most employees were being offered employment services and better paying jobs with the incoming Tesla operation.
So, what is the relevance of this to the Nevada mining industry? We can learn from systems that have been optimized both within and from outside our industry. In particular, I want to draw your attention to the commercial construction industry with whom I’ve been working while also continuing to consult to the mining industry. Quality in construction is paramount to being profitable (it prevents re-work that might not get reimbursed) and is positively correlated with fewer safety incidents.
Indeed, there are some data demonstrating that construction workers are much more likely to get hurt on the job if they are “re-doing” something that has already been completed. (I won’t go into the reasons for this right now, but it would make an ideal topic for a future article.) What I want to focus on is a little of what the top-rated construction companies do that has been correlated with both fewer construction defects (less rework) and fewer injuries. These are both outliers in the construction system. While there is a whole range of “leading indicators” that companies use, I don’t have space to mention them all. Suffice it to say that our challenge is to embrace the essence of this idea and to find parallels in the mining industry. That is, we need to identify processes we can regularly perform that will significantly impact our safety system in a positive, yet productive way.
Below is a table of variables correlated with the need to do rework on a commercial construction project. They are organized by those that are most predictive of the rate of rework per 200,000 man hours worked to those that are least predictive. What’s striking to me is that those with the strongest relationship have little to do with the employees who have their “boots on the ground” after the ground has been broken. In fact, many are most relevant during pre-construction, the phase of a construction project that occurs before the first shovel full of dirt is ever moved. Think of this as planning.
If we extend this to what the best construction companies do on a daily basis to prevent injuries, I can point to some data from a current client with whom we’ve demonstrated a strong positive correlation between doing both daily pre-task job analyses and maintaining a proactive housekeeping program and lower injury rates. Put differently, those construction sites with a higher rate of pre-task job analyses completion and better housekeeping scores experience few injuries throughout the course of the construction project. These two leading indicators have appeared to raise and tighten the standard of the system as it relates to safety. We are in the process of defining similar leading indicators to preventing rework. And, our prediction is that they will be similar. So, stay tuned.
In the early 2000s when the Center for Behavioral Safety pioneered Behavior-Based Safety in the mining industry, we were able to demonstrate a strong relationship between voluntary observation and feedback and lower injury rates. Many of you reading this article likely experienced that benefit in some way. Together we raised and tightened the safety standard at your respective mine sites. Even if not being practiced formally, those BBS systems are likely still producing some of the same benefits today because, among other reasons, many of you with your “boots on the ground” a decade ago brought the philosophy of that systemic change to the Supervisory or Management positions you hold today. However, in the spirit of continuous improvement, a question still remains: what more can we do to positively impact the mining system? I’ll give you a hint: it starts well before the mine site ever opens its doors.