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Mining operations can really benefit from implementing Kaizen principles, Mbuso Nkosi tells Leon Louw.
Mbuso, you were recently appointed as managing director of the Kaizen Institute South Africa. Please give us some background.
Yes, SMB Connexion has been appointed official representative for the Kaizen Institute for the SADC region. The business will now be known as Kaizen Institute South Africa and I will head up a team of nine experienced consultants.
Has the Kaizen methodology been used in South Africa before?
Many companies in South Africa have implemented parts of the Kaizen methodology; however, we now see a huge opportunity to broaden the scope of its implementation through a formalised local presence.
What is the significance of the Kaizen Institute to Africa?
What the Kaizen Institute brings to both South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa is an approach that builds sustainable enterprise excellence. This is vital for African businesses to be globally competitive and to establish sustainable, world-class organisations and communities. Kaizen principles are most effective when integrated with the business strategy and have been applied in all areas or value streams of the organisation.
Please explain the origins of the Kaizen Institute
Three decades after the publication of Masaaki Imai’s Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, Kaizen has become an everyday term used in personal, business, and government circles across the globe.
In 1985, Masaaki Imai founded Kaizen Institute in Switzerland, pioneering the lean management principles. Today, the company has expanded to over 45 business operations, based in various cities within Europe, the Americas, Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa.
However, the true power of Kaizen is still not fully harnessed by many businesses. In fact, most organisations have not yet grasped the depth of the real Kaizen methodology and have not aligned their entire corporate activities holistically.
Which areas of a mining company can the Kaizen principles be applied to most effectively?
The principles should touch every area of the mining business, and involve and empower all people within the organisation, not just management, nor can it be a short-term solution.
We believe that while most companies in South Africa have used lean tools, improvements to the business are short-lived because they have not been fully integrated into the business strategy and operations. Hence their impact is minimal.
Kaizen methodology provides a framework that uses continuous improvement (CI), which is applied to critical processes that are integral to the goals of the business. This ensures that the business strategy can be implemented effectively.
Are you doing work in the mining sector?
We have been working extensively with mining processing plants in the platinum sector, and SMB Connexion has been working with an iron ore opencast mine and processing plant since 2014.
In the mining sector, we assist operations that intend optimising their operations or want to work more cost-effectively. As consultants we look at the entire value stream; the wastage in the processing plant. In a platinum concentrator there is a range of processes that feeds into one another, and we would, for example, look at how we can optimise these and determine how we can improve the process.
Have you seen successes with the Kaizen principles?
Yes, it has been a differentiating factor. It is a change model and we have to determine how to manage the culture change and behaviour from the top to the bottom. The guys on the floor and on the stope are the people who really own the project, and everybody in the company needs to know and buy into the vision and goals of the company.
What does it really mean for the worker in the stope?
The workers in the stope not only drive change, but their targets should be aligned to the company’s goals. They would have to know how many tonnes they need to extract and have to be given the opportunity to see the bigger picture. They also need to be aware of how the work they do every day, in each shift, contributes to the overall well-being of the company.
Does it mean we have to empower the worker on the ground?
Yes, and we can do that by interacting with them and including them when we need to find solutions. Ask them what can be done to prevent the same problem from happening in the future.
In a traditional business, a mining engineer walks in fresh from university and immediately it is expected that he or she makes all the vital decisions, while there are people in the stope working in the same mine for more than 20 years and know it like the back of their hand. These are the people that can identify potential pitfalls or challenges, and they should be empowered to influence the decision-makers.
Wouldn’t this require a massive shift in mindset?
Of course, both top management and their employees need to change the way they have operated in the past. We need to get to a stage where employees at the coalface, so to speak, are comfortable with suggesting meaningful solutions. This means that managers have to meet with the actual people who do the job — those working in the stope. This instills a culture of ownership. In traditional mines, these opinions tend to be ignored. However, by implementing Kaizen principles, you can turn the situation around. It makes it clear to people that everybody in the organisation needs to think and solve problems. By nurturing this culture, a mining company can improve its safety record significantly. For example, instead of asking an employee how many injuries were recorded today, reframe the question and ask them how many hazards or potential hazards they have identified that day. Employees should feel that they are part of the solution, not the problem.
What happens when the principles are implemented but then there is a sudden change in leadership, for example a new shift boss or general manager?
Normally, when the workers are not involved, and there is a new person in a leadership position, change is extremely difficult to maintain, and the entire project can fall flat. However, by getting the workers involved, like the Kaizen principles imply, the possibility of failure is minimised. Continuous improvement is based on the plan–do–check–act (PDCA) principle, which ensures that everybody is repeatedly learning the new process, improving it, and executing the change.
When you are contracted to implement change at a mining operation, how do you go about it?
The first thing we do is to talk to employees on the ground. We organise focus groups and really try to understand the entire process better. We then implement a standardised method that must be adhered to on a daily basis. So, we set daily targets and most importantly, we use visual cues to accommodate those employees who may be illiterate. The underground environment doesn’t always lend itself to reams and reams of written procedures. In our experience, pictures are an effective means of conveying what needs to be done. There has to be a clear work plan, and not a reaction to what is supposed to happen every day. When we go underground, we communicate in a language that most employees understand and explain in a practical way what needs to be done. This approach has been very successful. We ask them which factors prevent them from achieving their goals, and of course, how can these seemingly insurmountable problems be solved. Each employee needs to be clear about why they shouldn’t be late, for example. This instruction needs to be explained in simple language, outlining the impact of the behaviour on employee morale, productivity, and the company as a whole.
Do you engage with the unions?
Absolutely. The unions, as representatives of employees, are integral to this process. We understand that to work with the unions benefits both the company and its employees. When we enter a mine or before we set up a meeting, the unions are informed, and their representatives accompany us on site. We have also learnt that if the unions perceive you as arrogant, they will oppose you. However, in our experience, unions have always been accommodating and helpful and aware that our programmes benefit their members.