Steve Franklin, founder of Eltirus, details the remarkable results that can emerge when quarry operators plan, do, check and act.
What would you think of a professional sporting competition that played teams against each other and only measured their results financially and didn’t let the players into how things worked out? Seems like this would be an odd way to manage things, yet this is all too common in business. Perhaps it is time to take another look.
One of the discussions we see in the financial press is the lack of productivity improvement that is currently occurring in Australia. For some reason, this does not appear to be as important to business as it has been in the past. The stark reality however is that as wages and costs go up, productivity must go up with it.
At Eltirus, we have a very strong focus on productivity improvement, and we see that those of our clients who wholeheartedly embrace this approach prosper and gain accordingly and those who want to stick to more traditional methods don’t.
The reality is that digitalisation and increasingly Artificial Intelligence are game changers. At the very least, they enable better decisions making, but how do we maximise the value of these technological advances – what frameworks are needed?
How do we improve something?
The primary way you improve anything is through Statistical Quality Analysis and there is a good chance that I have lost you right there – statistics was certainly not my favourite maths subject, and you would be well within your rights to ask, “what does this have to do with my quarry”?
Back in the 1920s, an American called Walter Shewart made two very important observations:
Data have no meaning apart from their context.
Data contain both signal and noise. To be able to extract information, one must separate the signal from the noise within the data.
These observations became the Shewart cycle, the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle.
This cycle is incredibly powerful – you plan what you are going to do, put the plan in action, check that the results are as expected and modify what you are doing based on the results – something that you are probably more than familiar with doing.
What does it mean in practice?
If we look at the PDCA cycle, we see that it is easy to Do. These are the actions that we take every day in the quarry to get the job done. We can also Check the outcomes, lab tests being a good example of where we Check and then Act as needed.
But interestingly in many parts of our business, we don’t have a Plan to Check against. For example, one of the ways to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce the amount of fleet idling time. To achieve this, you would have to have a Plan (or target) and some way to Check the results against achieved against the plan (a system to record equipment idling time). Without a Plan or the ability to Check the plan, your results are going to be at best, hit and miss.
How does this apply to quarry planning?
Some years ago, we put in place a system we call a Quarry Operating Plan (more commonly known at a QOP). This system is now in place on quarries across the region and interestingly is regularly sought out by auditors and regulators.
The reason we came up with this system was that we regularly saw life of quarry plans on office walls that were at best, ‘pretty pictures’. When we checked with quarry management, they generally had no idea of how they were going to achieve the plan displayed. The reasons for this were many, but revolved around the fact that first, it wasn’t broken down into ‘bite sized pieces’ and second, there was no way that it could be translated into the field (through lack of survey).
In the mining world, this progression from long term (>5 years) to medium term (1-5 years) to short term planning is fairly well understood and is often conducted by separate teams. Further, there is a continual reconciliation process conducted to ensure that the three different planning horizons (long, medium, and short) align for the best result against the geology, recovery and market requirements.
If this sounds a little over the top, I can think of many examples from over the years where a quarry manager had made a decision that looked great in the short term but was disastrous to the overall business due to material being sterilised, ramp access dug out or stripping requirements not being fully understood.
One of the reasons that these teams are often separated is to ensure a critical eye is run over the process from multiple angles.
It is also important the overall strategy for the quarry is reflected in the quarry budget. Where there is a well thought through plan for the site, this can feed into the budgeting process to ensure that senior management will have an accurate view of what material is available for sale and when and what capital will be needed for development. A budget that is not built up in conjunction and aligned with an effective quarry plan is not easy to understand, nor will it result in the best possible outcome.
Having an agreed upon short term plan that is operating in alignment with the overall long- and medium-term plan is the first part of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.
Checking the plan
If you have a robust plan that all stakeholders are aware of and have signed off on, the next step is to check planned results vs. actual results.
This process of reconciliation helps to identify whether the plan was followed or not and if not, why. This would include what material was extracted and from where and with what quality.
Variance could have been because of the material quality not matching what was expected (indicating a lack of geological knowledge), a change in sales balance or maybe the quarry was flooded (perhaps through poor stormwater management). Whatever the reason was, a well thought through plan that is reconciled against actuals will ensure that senior management can be confident the site is on track (or not) and gain insight into what has occurred (both good and bad) and the confidence in what changes need to be made.
Acting on the plan
In the lead up to the Sydney Olympics I was running a very large quarry in the greater Sydney region, and we were continually sold out. My focus was on increasing productivity and output in any way that I could.
One of the things that I was most focussed on was crushing and screening performance. Working with an excellent lab manager, we focused on increasing concrete aggregate throughput and yield and had some huge improvement in both through adopting a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach.
One of the things were working on was how could pull as much of the bottom end of the 14mm into the 10mm and the top end of it up into the 20mm and improve the shape (without running the Barmac).
The approach we took was to create a detailed plan of the whole process and record the settings and configuration on this sheet, run a test on yield improvement and then from this adjust the plant accordingly.
This worked most of the time, but occasionally we found very unexpected results that perplexed us and so our Check didn’t result in an effective Act. Not being one to let things go, I did a lot of investigation into why we didn’t get the result that we had planned. Invariably, it was because some ‘bright spark’ had decided to make a change to the process that we didn’t know about. Crusher settings were not adhered to, different size screen meshes were used ‘because that was what we had’, resulting in unexplained variations.
Once we understood this problem, we went back to ensuring that the configuration plan (we called it a plant configurator) was better communicated and that everyone knew that there was no ‘freelancing’ on how things were setup and run. This approach can be used in many, many ways.
As a final example – on this same site, I was curious as to the level of the stockyard floor. No-one could tell me what the design height of the floor was. Given we were sold out, the area was easily accessible, and I brought in a backhoe with the narrowest trenching bucket to dig test pits across the floor.
Imagine my surprise when we found over the years the stockpile floor had continued to increase to the point where there was some 2m of material left behind. In short, there was no Plan for the stockpile floor height and over time, the Do (stockpiling and loading out of those stockpiles) had resulted in an accumulation of lost material. Without a Check process (no survey of the floor level), there was no opportunity to Act, (recover the lost material). Digging the test holes gave us the Check (the depth of lost material) that we needed, and we then could Act (push it up with a dozer and re-screen for sale).
Have a Plan, Do it, Check the actual results and compare how they relate to the Plan – from there you can Act with certainty – the results can be quite remarkable.
For more information visit eltirus.com