Many mining companies operate with a mindset that made perfect sense in the more stable and predictable times that marked most of the second half of the 20th century. As the 2007-08 global financial crisis taught us, the world is now more volatile, confusing, and filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. To date few companies have managed to overcome this challenge. Even the majors, who can afford to employ Tier One consulting firms, continue to struggle for answers.
Focus on Australia
Through an association with Stratflow.com.au, our primary interest is in the mining industry in Australia.
Australian mining experienced a resource boom in the Industrial Age. In the early 1960s, discoveries of new metals led to a resurgence of interest in Australia’s mineral resources. Production also increased and Australia became a major raw materials exporter, especially to Japan and Europe.
Today Australia is one of the world’s leading mineral resources nations. According to the History of Australia’s mining industry, It is the world’s largest refiner of bauxite, producer of gem and industrial diamonds, lead and tantalum, and the mineral sands ilmenite, rutile and zircon. Other world rankings in production are: zinc (2nd); gold, iron ore and manganese ore (3rd); nickel, aluminium (4th); copper, silver, black coal (5th).
It seems odd that Australia’s enviable position has been accomplished with productivity levels that have been trending downwards. According to Ernst & Young capital productivity in Australia has fallen 45% since 2000. Perhaps it’s because Australia hasn’t been alone in the worldwide decline. E&Y reported labour productivity in the South African gold sector dropping by 35% since 2007.
These sobering findings are corroborated by McKinsey which found that global mining productivity overall has decreased by 29% over the last decade. From 2014 to 2016 McKinsey’s Mine Lens shows a 2.8% per annum uptick in productivity, but productivity is still far below the level 15 years ago.
Intractable or Wicked Problems in Mining
Mining managers want stable and predictable results. Constraints in terms of quality process control limits govern behaviour. When a deviation happens within the limits, problem-solving methods like root cause analysis are used to restore conformance. This type of problem is absolutely fixable and deemed complicated.
A “wicked” problem is different; it is complex and lies beyond the Upper Control Limit.
Wicked problems are pervasive in the mining industry. Consider land degradation neutrality, climate change advocacy, local community benefits, disruptive innovation impacts. These won’t go away; actions will only improve or worsen each case. At the company level, wicked problems are commonly expressed as human exasperations.
- As an executive, you’re frustrated with events that unexpectedly emerge to disrupt production.
- As a manager, you’re angry when corporate performance statistics don’t reflect the tireless effort required to keep things running locally.
- As a supervisor, you’re frustrated with fault finding in people and blaming individuals for mediocre results that are beyond their control.
- As an engineer, you’re disillusioned by past innovative programs that started with a bang and then either withered away or had the budget pulled.
- As a safety professional, you see the paradox of workers needing to adjust task behaviours due to varying work conditions while attempting to comply with rigid rules.
- As a tradesperson, you can sense worsening mine conditions but feel powerless in voicing your concerns.
Have we reached a plateau in our ability to improve on each of these issues individually as well as collectively? Peter Senge claimed: “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions”. Albert Einstein and later Steve Jobs said we need to think differently.
Mining Differently: an Anthro-complexity approach
The Australian Government understands how difficult wicked problems are to resolve.
“Tackling wicked problems is an evolving art. They require thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them. They often require broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches. This may result in the occasional failure or need for policy change or adjustment.”
Cognitive Edge has developed an innovative approach called anthro-complexity, a new field based on cognitive science, anthropology, and the human aspects of Complex Adaptive Systems. It is the approach we will apply as we build upon the previous ages and enter the Age of Ecology and Cognitive Complexity.