I had an interesting inquiry from a project manager about the mining industry the other day. It happened when I was researching about Design Thinking.
This is how it went:
“Mind if I ask you something about your industry? For some reason, I see the mining / natural resources field as a lot of ‘burly guys.’ They may be a tough audience for Design Thinking. Perhaps I am wrong. Please enlighten me."
My first response, of course, was a smile and chuckle to myself, because who hasn’t met a ‘burly guy’ in the mining sector? In fact, the term made me think of a number of 'burly guys' that I worked with throughout the years of my career in this sector.
But I had to give an appropriate response. And so I went on to explain the complexity, the extended life, the multiple stages, and all of the people that become involved with mining and natural resource developments over the years.
And then I admitted that, yes, of course you may run into some ‘burly guys’ in the sector (as there are in almost every industrial sector!) And although those ‘burly guys’ may look rough on the outside, they are a broadly diverse bunch who are generally caring, wise, experienced, and very knowledgeable. Add to that the large amounts of time spent in remote, and sometimes pretty tough conditions, and they still get things done.
But let’s get on to the greater questions behind the inquiry.
How much does the general public really know about our industry? There are, unfortunately, ‘reality’ shows that purvey us as reckless people who go around destroying the environment just to make a buck.
And how many professionals, some who may be well qualified to serve our industry, would never consider it - simply because they just don’t know what they’re missing?
A Compelling Exploit
Mining, and the project phases leading up to mine development, are by far some of the most interesting, complex, challenging, and long-lived projects around. It is one of the reasons that drew me to this field in the first place and it is definitely a worthwhile career pursuit.
In fact, there are relatively few people that can lay claim to having been involved with any one mining project from its inception through to its end. These are, perhaps, those individuals living in communities near the mining developments, and perhaps a few long-standing company or site-based stakeholders. For some properties, even finding someone whose been involved simply up until the point of ‘turning the keys on’ for operations, can be an exception.
With mining development projects, there are inherent major challenges, simply due to their extended duration, their multiple phases. They really are portfolios of multiple smaller projects, where the components have strong interdependencies, linked risks, overlapping schedules, and a common outcome. All of the moving parts need to come together in an integrated package to deliver the end result - an operation to extract, process, produce & deliver the desired ore.
Some of these major challenges are linked to what has been referred to as the "The Three Cs of Success" in the project management community:
coordination, communication and collaboration
Kevin Coleman indicated that, unfortunately, although these soft skills are some of the hardest to acquire, these 3 C’s do not receive a lot of attention in project management standards. And they are often skills that are only gradually developed over a long period of time, or they only receive specific development focus by management types.
With respect to the mining world, there are additional distinct challenges which impact the success of applying the 3 C’s, compounding the potential risk of project failure.
When it comes to coordination, timing has been cited as one of the most challenging aspects.
In mining, there may not be much detail to formulate a plan and coordinate timing of all the parts from start to finish - at least not when you are starting out. In early phases, we are gradually gathering information about our starting point, AND our end goals, continually assessing the feasibility of moving forward with later stages - always based upon the respective level of information we have at the time.
It's a bit of a balancing game between spending a lot of money on data collection about various elements that may impact design, before one knows whether it will entirely be necessary because the feasibility of the development has not yet been proven. Hence, the planning and coordination of some moving parts are constantly in flux until much later phases.
In addition, there are complications with personnel changes, as I referred to in a previous post. Due to the number of evaluation phases, and the shifts in focus for each one, there can be significant turnover in personnel, stakeholders, entire teams, and project leads as well. Add to that the multiple teams that typically need to be managed at any one point in time - managing sequential, overlapping, and concurrent work - particularly through transitional periods.
While this last comment may be relevant to most large projects, mining project sequences are not as straightforward as a waterfall approach leading from one stage to the next. This is perhaps another contributor to the failure of mine projects to meet time and cost baselines - forcing a waterfall approach to projects that require much more flexibility.
Because we are continually gathering information about the state of our starting points, our risks, and our end goals (through stakeholder engagement), a more agile, iterative, and progressive development of project scope is required through all of the early phases.
Touching back to the research I mentioned, this is in effect the perfect type of project to purposefully apply Design Thinking strategies. In actuality, most of the key components already occur in mine projects - stakeholder engagement, multiple diverse viewpoints, and taking design concepts and testing them out, and applying an iterative cycle to these tasks to determine how we will finally deliver the end goal. The final point which I did not mention, collaboration, does occur too - we just need to get better at it. I'll discuss that more below.
The timeline graphic below gives a brief, and high-level, glimpse at all the moving phases and studies of a mining development, and how they might integrate.
While this has been generalized, the main point is that we need to be mindful of all of those parts, all that we have learned and completed, and all that still needs to be accomplished (and how it might impact our current work), no matter what stage of the project that we are in. And when lead roles begin to change, through execution of individual phases, or across a transition period, staying on top of tracking, documenting, and communications of those aspects, can become flawed.
The coordination is very complex.
Communication is one of the most critical elements for any project. In mining, integrated with the issues of personnel turnover and project duration, are the following challenges:
- Maintenance of the project scope/change record from start to finish, with all of its shifts and changes (as there always are), the reasons behind those various decisions, and all of the risks associated.
- Transfer, review and incorporation of information from past, to present, to future.
- Relevant barriers to communication, due to the remoteness of field activities in relation to design and/or corporate and regulatory entities.
- 'Language' barriers with various stakeholders (both cultural and technical, as expanded further below).
Record keeping, review of past information, derivation of the most critical aspects, and communication of those elements can make or break the success of a mine development.
Missing the wrong things can introduce significant risks, causing excessive cost and schedule upsets at much later stages - when scope changes or additions may become necessary to manage an unidentified risk.
The persistence of working silos, exacerbated by the presence of remote teams, makes this problem an even greater challenge.
One collaboration software provider shared some key points about collaboration. They suggested that "while project management plays an important role in business, project collaboration is just as crucial...how your people work together to complete a project...as well as ensuring they have the proper tools to make it happen."
Among their beneficial claims for project collaboration, are:
- Faster production time
- Better brainstorming and input
- Improved communication
- Better employee relationships
On the flip side, another provider noted some top reasons why collaboration efforts fail:
- Siloed teams
- Reliance on email and spreadsheets, and information scatter
- Lack of collaborative project management tools
Of course, while these reasons are in fact valid in many organizations, these solution providers have not revealed some of the underlying issues causing challenges to collaboration and communication, which will exist even with specially designed tools:
- Different communication and decision-making styles
- Different attitudes toward conflict, risk, and disclosure
- Different approaches to knowing, and to completing tasks
Now add to that the complications of large-scale, and remote, projects:
- Shear number of teams to align, let alone coordinate, for potential collaborative activities or sessions
- Virtual team aspects due to physical distance and barriers to direct communication and collaboration
It seems an insurmountable task to achieve successful collaboration. One observation suggested that it's success is "very dependent on people being in the same space." I would add to the comment that at least having the ability to be online at the same time can accomplish much of the same. And it is very true - getting people into one room is always helpful.
However, getting people in the 'same room' becomes very difficult with not only remote settings, but also when the remote locations do not have supportive technologies to readily access the 'online' world, particularly as a group. So, having some way to provide input to an iterative, collaborative planning and feedback mechanism, is a start.
So Can we do better?
And if so, how? I have a few suggestions, perhaps you have more...
First, start everything with a fourth C - clarity.
Of purpose and intent. Of scope and requirements in their entirety. And of the interdependencies and influences each respective party has on the others, as well as the project as a whole.
If we don't know where we are going, the benefits and outcomes that are desired, all the rest will fall apart.
Second, listen to understand - not just to reply. And then use the information gained.
If we have intent to engage others about their concerns, ideas and inputs to influence a design or plan, we need to really understand what they are saying. We need to ask questions to drill down to the underlying issues, to clarify the information. And then we need to use that information to form our solutions - to meet the objectives of all, or to allow us the means to justify the selection of one option over another (when it comes to conflicting objectives.)
Third, map things out in a visual format, and then use that resource to support the 3 Cs (and more)!
Process flows. Overlapping and integrated team activities. Inputs and outputs to decision points. And stakeholder relationships.
1. There is a ton of research that indicates attention spans are decreasing over time.
This means people are less patient, less likely to thoroughly review past data and analyses to find all the relevant aspects that may impact their current and future work.
Making it easy to identify where and when more detailed, relevant information may be retrieved through a mapped visual will not only help ensure all the risks and inputs to plans and designs are captured, but will also reduce the amount of time each party might require, in order to review past work to do so.
2. More may be interpreted and remembered from a visual than from lines and lines of text. Everyone has heard the saying "a picture says a 1000 words". There is truth to this, as visuals can help to reduce language barriers, as well as simplify complex issues for communications. It is one of the many reasons behind the explosive use of infographics online.
In this particular infographic, the authors present why "visual content is extremely effective...engaging and more convincing":
- 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual
- 93% of all human communication is non-verbal
- people are 30 times more likely to read an infographic than a text article
- 40% of people respond better to visual information than plain text
And visuals, particularly if they were co-created through collaborative methods, help convey a story, a proven way to increase engagement and memory retention. In fact, people remember 80% of what they see and do, compared with only 20% of what they read, and 10% of what they hear.
But more than that, because visuals can be processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text, they also reduce brain fatigue. Using the thinking part of our brains, the frontal cortex, consumes an extreme amount of energy, and we should be optimizing the use of that energy to be working out solutions, as opposed to reading background information.
Help both your teams, and your more distant stakeholders, become more engaged, informed, and effective with the use of visuals. Support the improvement of all three Cs.
Too much work, you say?
In design, we already utilize process flow diagrams to outline and guide project teams and support staff in design implementation. Often these flow diagrams are limited to the production of end products and the management of related wastes, and/or resources required for the process.
Expanding on such processes and using them for broader engagement, collaboration and communication could lead to a lot of efficiencies.
They can bring a systematic check to planning and coordination of sequential and overlapping work.
And they can be used to keep a permanent record of change over time, for update and then review during project phase transitions by respective teams, particularly with respect to major decisions or scope changes made in the past. This gives ever-changing teams a way to maintain control over projects risks, as opposed to inadvertently introducing them.
Wouldn't you agree?
What other tips and tricks might you suggest?
Enviro Integration Strategies is offering an online training which involves mapping strategies for front-end project planning. For more information, and to consider piloting the training process, please visit www.envirointegration.com