October 2015

Frontiers in the race to superior productivity

  • By Malcolm Roberts MAusIMM; Principal and co-founder, Conscious

The role of culture, leadership, character and deeper understanding

Human energy, and its purposeful use, is the key to sustained superior productivity needed to survive and even thrive in current mining industry markets (Catchpole and Robins, 2015 and Mitchell, 2014a, 2014b).

How do effective and committed leaders across mining disciplines become even more valuable? They design, build and lead a safe and productive culture, long-known as the most powerful determinant of productivity. This is the leader’s primary responsibility.

Strong, conscious leadership and culture in turn depend on the leader’s strength-of-character and commitment. Today these non-technical soft skills make the hard leadership difference.

Spirited workplace and corporate cultures are palpable. The quality of people’s energy is felt as authenticity, trust, respect, enthusiasm, care, commitment, creativity, innovation and open collaboration aligned in achieving shared goals. Human spirit and people’s mental, physical and emotional energies are naturally and freely released in voluntary pursuit of goals. Respected cultural boundaries provide tightness of purpose, self-discipline and powerful accountability.

These issues go to the heart of being human. Nonetheless, the fact that such cultures for connecting, guiding and multiplying human energy are rare reveals they are not widely understood. Yet leaders who understand are rewarded with clarity that brings ease in work while accomplishing far more.

Leaders’ beliefs and care shape culture

Working as a coalface miner it became clear that improving safety increases productivity because incidents waste valuable resources. Ending the waste of human emotional, physical and creative energy, time, money, equipment and materials increases productivity. Success as a young mine manager confirmed this.

Yet directors, executives, managers and inspectors still advocate balancing safety and productivity, as if mutually exclusive.

Similarly, 50 years ago quality was thought to increase costs yet now it is proven worldwide that improving quality – of product, work and leadership – reduces costs and improves productivity.

The erroneous belief that safety and quality reduce productivity is traceable to pervasive accounting and commercial reporting systems rooted in legislation from the Great Depression. We need to restore reality.

Leaders who understand that safety, quality and environment protection increase productivity shape sustainable cultures that become safe, low-cost, highly productive and low in commercial and CSR risk.

There’s more though. Safety can be defined as the state of being in which people are conscious of, successfully manage, and feel accountable for the potential for injury or loss (Graham, Roberts and Sloan, 1997). Safety depends on people’s consciousness and inner accountability.

Consciousness and personal accountability depend on many factors including organisational management systems, leaders’ behaviour, proactive and reactive safety systems, equipment selection and operation, facility design, communication, recruitment, training and culture – everything that affects behaviour.

A culture of safety and productivity is developed by leaders who genuinely put safety first, lead by example, sincerely and personally care about their people, are highly visible, monitor and investigate safety breaches to prevent recurrence, ingrain safety and quality into leadership and work processes, and personally recognise and appreciate people’s efforts and results.

Drivers of human behaviour and culture

Culture is the combination of what people do and what they believe and feel about what they do. It’s a combination of behaviours, attitudes and beliefs combined with organisational legends and demonstrated values. It can sabotage or multiply enthusiasm.

Six prominent drivers of human behaviour are:

  • Genetics, determined largely at birth yet changing with diet and environment.
  • Personal patterns developed from birth to age six and somewhat to puberty (Montessori, 1972 and various). We perceive the world based on our childhood beliefs entrenched in adult feelings triggering unconscious habitual reactions to fear, conflict, anger and emotional pain.
  • Experience.
  • Systems.
  • Leadership – people focus on leaders’ actions because these demonstrate what is important.
  • Universal human needs underlying every person’s behaviour. In groups these can be magnified because many people seek acceptance and belonging. Culture drives conformity with expectations.

Behaviours and attitudes are closely intertwined. For that reason, many managers and executives think that changing people’s attitudes will change behaviours to change culture. Yet the reality is the reverse: people develop attitudes by aligning them with behaviours – behaviours shape attitudes.

To change culture requires changing systems to drive changed behaviours that in turn lead to changed attitudes. The combination of changed behaviours and attitudes produces culture change.

Before designing systems to change behaviour, each significant system needs to be quantitatively measured in terms of behaviours and effectiveness.

Project plan and tracking progress

Fundamental questions for leaders include:

  • What has the greater effect on productivity: workplace culture or buildings and machines? The answer is culture.
  • Would anyone construct a building or machine without a plan? No.
  • Why not? Because the buildings and machines would be expensive and produce sub-par and risky performance.
  • Given that buildings and machines are planned, where’s the leader’s plan for improving culture?

Culture changes are often haphazard. Instead, to be effective and the transition efficient, the new culture needs to be consciously designed and changes planned and implemented. Culture change needs to be treated as a project using project management software and specific measures tracking every leader’s responsibilities for achieving the plan.

A plan builds people’s commitment and reduces uncertainty that can otherwise lead to anxiety. It builds people’s confidence in leaders.

In the early 1990s the Gordonstone mine successfully pioneered many industry leadership innovations. The project plan for designing, building and leading a productive culture dominated the project.

Despite being our country’s largest and most complex underground coal project and despite unexpectedly needing Australian coal’s highest roadway strata support density, the longwall face in its first year became the first to produce 4 million tonnes, 25 per cent above the previous Australian record and double that of the previous best under equivalent roadway strata support. The mine had by far the best safety performance of all large Australian underground coalmines and exceptionally high workforce retention despite vigorous attempts to poach its miners and leaders. In its second year the longwall became the first to produce 5 million tonnes a year.

Leaders choose responses

Leaders are responsible for the culture and for their own behaviour. Consider the most powerful leadership trait – strength of character. It determines the effectiveness of all leadership traits.

This trait defines leaders and is the standout leadership trait defining culture yet is rarely discussed.

It is the combination of key character qualities such as personal integrity, honesty with self and about self, willpower over unconscious reactions, courage, commitment, determination, perseverance, self-discipline, consciousness, fortitude, maintaining core values, restraint and self-control. It is about taking responsibility, insisting on high standards and following through on commitments to be accountable to one’s values and to others.

It is seen in a leader’s ability to face and tackle difficult challenges, listening to connect with and understand others when it hurts, speaking forthrightly, challenging constructively, openly admitting errors and honestly considering criticism, suggestions and requests.

It is being conscious of, and rising above, reactive patterns formed in childhood to freely choose responses.
It is being true to oneself and rising above seeking external gratification and popularity.

It is essential for facing and conquering fears and for staying the course and withstanding despite suffering setbacks, facing conflict or being alone when others are crumbling.

It is insisting on solid data and doing sound analysis to make informed decisions. When data is lacking it’s having courage to seek considered opinion and follow intuition.

It is about being constructive and being loving, trusting and caring toward oneself, a key to loving and caring for others and being trusted. After all, how can others trust us if we do not sincerely trust ourself and care for others? Strength of character develops trust and care, which are key leadership traits.

In my experience across varied Australian and international cultures, people are not afraid of change, yet can fear uncertainty. Trust reduces people’s uncertainty and fear.

Effective leaders demonstrate personal awareness and emotional mastery (Roberts, 2005). They are aware of reactions and master impulses to choose productive responses.

Well-designed quantitative assessments of leadership and behaviour effectiveness accelerate the process. These must be rigorous, practical, objective, comprehensively designed, constructive and supportive.

Measurement Analysis Reporting

In addition to understanding culture, behaviour and strength of character, effective leaders understand fundamentals for improving performance. The key to improving performance is understanding and improving production processes. That requires understanding and managing variation.

This was introduced to manufacturing eight decades ago and in the last four decades revolutionised industry. Mines measuring and managing variation develop a profound competitive advantage.

The principles apply to all processes including commercial, exploration, mining and processing. They apply across all engineering, maintenance, geology and commercial disciplines and across all functions including leadership and technical.


Yet despite proven success at Gordonstone and other mines internationally, attempts to imitate their systems without understanding core principles fail because leaders are often trapped in traditional accounting systems.

Thorough understanding of processes and performance requires solid measuring of results and processes; sound data analysis using simple, practical, statistically valid methods; and reporting to the people whose behaviour is to be driven. These combine to be the most powerful driver of productive behaviour.

The Measurement Analysis Reporting (MAR) system enables people to develop clarity and choose informed responses. It makes work easier for leaders and their people and when work and leadership processes are easier, people are more productive, satisfied and proud.

Mining inherently faces far greater variation than do other industries. It is essential in mining to understand process variation to understand capability.

It is proven worldwide that reducing variation is the most powerful and quickest initial step to improve and sustain performance, improve
reliability, manage risk and optimise commercial returns.

Understanding data and processes

Figure 1 shows both main causes of variation: inherent (or routine) variation and process change (or exceptional) variation (Roberts, 1996).

Making sense of data requires statistically valid yet simple and practical understanding of central tendency such as mean (average) and measures of the spread of data about the central tendency.

Both are fundamental in Statistical Process Control for understanding data using simple statistically valid rules without complex statistical formulae.

Conventional business performance analysis compares two points in isolation out of context – actual versus budget or actual versus previous period. It prevents understanding variation. Leaders waste energy reacting to inherent variation and miss valuable opportunities when they miss process changes.

Widely used conventional management reporting systems drive counterproductive and at times corrosive behaviour. They can focus leaders on blame yet discipline and accountability are low because excuses are easily fabricated.

But when combined with understanding of variation, run charts and control charts guide people to develop informed responses to process changes and to reduce inherent variation to improve process performance. Discipline – including self-discipline – improves to raise accountability and commitment. Leaders guide and support people to improve processes.

What gets measured gets managed. How it’s analysed determines whether it’s managed well. How it’s reported drives behaviour.

Understanding fundamentals minimises mining vagaries and complexities while increasing speed of response. At a mine prior to using MAR and 16 shifts after incorrect plumbing on a maintenance shutdown, the waste pile was noticed to contain product. Analysing the data later revealed that with MAR, the process change would’ve been obvious after one shift, preventing eight days of partial lost production. After implementing these principles the mine increased productivity and uncovered cost and energy savings across the site.

MAR at an old processing plant dramatically lifted throughput in the first month with ongoing continual improvement thereafter. Pleasingly, the young manager was more ecstatic that for the first time in the mill’s 30-year life people truly understood its core processes. Understanding drives future performance.

Increased understanding of processes increases ability to process variable feed grades in mills and plants, increasing business flexibility to minimise capital and cut risk.

Behavioural change

Sound MAR changes leaders’ behaviour and changes culture. It develops confidence and builds accountability to provide discipline to those few individuals failing to exercise adequate self-discipline. This shows leaders care.

In 1979 Ellalong mine’s longwall development headings changed shift performance measurement from shuttle carloads/shift used in bord and pillar headings to metres per shift. This changed behaviour underground. At Gordonstone that evolved to metres per day to foster teamwork across shifts and then to cycle time to drive understanding of the whole process. As a result panel extensions interrupted production for one shift or less per cycle compared with the norm of 3-6 shifts at the time in Queensland.

Cycle Time charts (Figure 2) rapidly and profoundly improve cyclical processes and productivity by stimulating paralleling of activities to greatly reduce cycle time. Teamwork and coordination improve.

Figure 2. Cycle time chart

During commodity booms many companies are sidetracked on production growth at any cost. That undermines a culture of productivity and increases risks during subsequent market contractions and during skills shortages. Conversely, at all parts of the cycle, MAR maintains focus on productivity.

Performance improvement methodology

The Taguchi curve proves reducing variation decreases productivity losses. The methodology is based on first understanding, stabilising and controlling processes and then lifting performance. Results repeatedly confirm that this more quickly improves performance and reliability.

Pareto charts (Figure 3) eliminate knee-jerk reactions to individual data points within inherent variation. They prioritise to guide systematic planning of improvement that results in disciplined, rapid, sustained high performance.

Figure 3. Pareto chart

Convert pressure to a sense of ease

Leaders across mining disciplines feel pressure for safety, productivity, quality, environment and social sustainability. With understanding, these can be converted to vehicles developing people’s accountability, enthusiasm, commitment and pride. Instead of being battered, leaders then have freedom to lead naturally with ease.

To improve performance, improve organisational systems that drive behaviour, and do so in a plan for improving performance with leadership that is conscious, disciplined and passionately committed to purposeful, rewarding use of human energy. 


Catchpole, M & Robins, W, 2015, ‘The Productivity Challenge’, The AusIMM Bulletin, June 2015, https://www.ausimmbulletin.com/feature/the-productivity-challenge.

Graham, R, Roberts, M & Sloan, G, 1997, personal discussions based on the work of Dr. Neil George.

Mitchell, P (Ed) et al, 2014a, ‘Productivity in mining, A Case for Broad Transformation’, Ernst & Young http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/EY-Productivity-in-mining/$FILE/EY-Productivity-in-mining.pdf.

Mitchell, P (Ed) et al, 2014b, ‘Productivity in mining: now comes the hard part—a global survey’, Ernst & Young http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/EY-productivity-in-mining-now-comes-the-hard-part/$FILE/EY-productivity-in-mining-now-comes-the-hard-part.pdf.

Montessori, Dr. M, 1972, ‘The discovery of the child’, Random House, New York and various works of arguably the greatest observer, recorder and writer on human development and behaviour.

Roberts, MI, 1996, ‘Superior Productivity at Established Mines: Tapping Individual Diversity with Modern Management Systems for Higher Margins’, AusIMM Annual Conference, Perth.

Roberts, MI, 2005, Understanding organisational and personal behaviour to sustain high productivity and safety, AusIMM COAL 2005 Conference, Brisbane.

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