Mining Safety through enabling systems


In 2013, after spending many years doing manufacturing turnarounds, the world’s foremost TOC in Mining consultant invited me to help and reduce his workload. In the late 1990’s, he designed a powerful intervention called the Productivity Platform. It combines the best of Theory of Constraints (systems thinking) and Dialogic Organisational Development to improve production flow. This approach typically delivers 20-30% increased output (with same resources) within 6 months. Even more surprising is that the intervention requires one consultant spending two days or less per week with the client.

Near the end of my involvement with the first client, I noticed some unusual changes. The pressurised work environment had been replaced by one where “super flow in a spirit of calmness” was the norm, managers and workers now seemed to enjoy their interactions. Employees (and managers) became noticeable engaged and innovative in their approach. But more than that, it seemed that the safety performance was starting to improve. On asking my colleague about this improvement in safety he smiled and said, “when the productivity improves so does the safety”. A year later I read the shareholders report and found that they had won almost all the safety prizes in their group. With the next client, the same relationship held, as productivity improved so did the attention to safety and safety record.

This I found surprising, substantial literature is available highlighting the trade-off managers and workers are constantly making between productivity and safety.  There are numerous examples of accidents where, with the benefit of hindsight, investigators and researchers have pointed to the apparent focus on the productivity agenda to the detriment of safety. Professor Sydney Dekker1) maintains that organisations that claim that “safety is our number one priority” are fooling themselves. “And so, there’s always a constant set of goals that are active at the same time, people need to be safe, but they need to produce, so that you can survive until the next day, the next year, the next quarter”.

I found this contradiction intriguing and started a journey to understand 1) why productivity improved so dramatically and 2) why improved safety, employee engagement and innovation emerge spontaneously because of the new way of working 3) why the traditional safety productivity trade-off seemed no longer (at least in the short term) to be in operation.

The conclusions reached are shown below. The full article is available for download at the end of this section.


Mining organisations generally plan and organise work according to Command and Control principles. There is great value in this way of structuring operations, but when it goes too far, it leads to a focus on the activities and performance of individual departments and employees at the expense of overall system performance. As stated in “Systems Thinking for Safety: Ten Principles ”..a mechanical perspective encourages internal competition, gaming, and blaming. Purposeful components (e.g. departments) compete against other components, ‘game the system’ and compete against the common purpose. When things go wrong, people retreat into their roles, and components (usually individuals) are blamed.” Under these circumstances, unity of purpose and trust disappears.
In this manner, managers destabilise the flow of work and overload their cognitive abilities since everything becomes important and in need of constant attention and adjustment. Work becomes difficult for them and their subordinates.
The information factory (information on work is sent away to be processed by people not involved in the daily work and returned in the form of control measures), which is a consequence of Command and Control management, follows from “work as imagined” at senior level being considered the same as “work as done” at the coalface. Given that the work environment in mining is dynamic and shows a high degree of variability and interdependency, efforts to control work remotely shackles the ability of subordinates to compensate and adjust properly to the situation as it unfolds.
The most powerful management efforts focus on changing the accepted best practice management paradigms. Seddon says “Forget your people. Real leaders act on the system. Real leaders redesign the system to meet demand. When leaders act on the system, customers cheer, costs fall, and the culture change comes free.”

The Productivity Platform enables mine management to work according to systems principles. It creates a platform where managers and employees can safely practice the new way of managing, without getting rid of the beneficial characteristics of Command and Control and Hierarchy.
It reduces the levers to control to the absolute minimum and unshackles employees to do what needs to be done for the good of the whole. It creates an environment where employees have a purpose, can achieve mastery and have more autonomy.
It exposes the difference between work as imagined and work as done. This is a crucial step towards improving the overall system.
Managing according to the new paradigm creates superflow in a spirit of calmness and expands the capabilities and outcomes of the system under management control. In other words, work becomes easy. Managers and employees can coordinate across functional departments and deliver exceptional results with current resources. The critical boundary where safety issues start to appear shifts outwards, allowing much higher productivity while improving safety. More time is available to discuss the effect of operations on safety and to find innovative ways of mitigating these issues.
It is possible to radically improve productivity, safety and innovation in mining. But to do this we have to adjust our management paradigm. This is much harder to do than getting a Tier 1 consultancy to launch a Productivity, Values, Safety, Digitization initiative for us, but the rewards are so much greater. This article dealt primarily with mining, but it is possible to adapt the productivity platform to project, service and supply chain environments also.

Download PDFDownload “Safety through enabling systems in mining” (PDF, 635KB)