Using Lean to Improve Production in an Underground Mine

Contributor:  Mining IQ Editorial

Posted:  01/22/2015

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed Australia's mining sector is half as productive as it was around ten years ago. Research has shown that mining is becoming less efficient in its use of labour and resources year on year as output generated by each hour worked is now 56 per cent lower than in 2002.

With commodity prices continuing to drop from record highs, it’s not surprising that productivity and waste elimination has come under the spotlight for mining operations.

Lean is a methodology that’s been around for many years, revolutionizing the manufacturing industry since its beginnings from Toyota. We’re now seeing an increasing uptake of mining operations utilising Lean to improve operations.

One of the most recent success stories is at Yancoal’s Abel Mine where over the last 18 months the deployment of the lean methodology has resulted in some impressive figures:

  • 44% improvement in TRIFR Reduced rate to below industry standard
  • 115% improvement in throughput
  • Halved cost per tonne

Bridget McCall, Program Manager, Business Optimisation at Yancoal explained some of the key drivers behind using the lean approach: “In underground coal mining the mining machine moves through the product as opposed to the product moving through the machine in manufacturing, but it’s still a factory for producing coal. It still has repetitive work cycles for operators, supplies that need to be available when they’re required, changeovers and most importantly a manual operation. A lot of people work on the process, it’s very hands on.

“Lean manufacturing, when it’s implemented fully, can transform businesses from underperforming to best in class and beyond. It applies equally to the mining industry as to manufacturing, as our pilot at Yancoal’s Donaldson Coal Abel Underground Mine near Maitland shows. The benefits include outcomes for the business as well as for individual team members.

 The mine is a much better place to work for the employees, more stable and predictable in their everyday work. “It’s the companies that are using lean principles that can deliver sustainable results; we’ve got to a point now where production has almost tripled, making this bord and pillar operation more competitive than many longwall mines.

In addition to cost savings, as a result of the work we’ve seen a significant improvement in safety statistics. “Our results have stabilized currently, but we still believe we can make more significant improvements to take us closer to our full potential. The project has been so successful that Yancoal has adopted the process as a companywide program – the Yancoal Way, and is currently extending the deployment to two more operations – Austar Coal Mine near Cessnock and Yarrabee Coal Mine in Queensland.”

Of course it’s not all been plain sailing, one of the biggest challenges when implementing a business improvement programme comes from the ability to manage change and modify mind-sets and behaviours to support a lean operation.

Bridget explained the key to leadership:

“Lean challenges the management and workforce to change prevailing ways of operating and also behaving. Sponsorship from senior people on site for pilot selection is vital to ensure deployment is in line with business needs.

“Understanding the detail and current state of the pilot area is the next step. From that it’s applying lean tools and systems to key organisational levers, matched with planning and learning for the leadership team. This allows them to better understand the ‘why’ behind the tools, improving the mind-set and behaviours to support a lean organisation.

“The main obstacle to overcome is changing proven and successful habits, In order to learn and apply different habits and routines; change management is required for both individuals and work teams. The evidence for lean, in my experience is that once people understand the principles and can see examples of how it benefits them and the business and how it meets their needs, the ongoing application of the tools and the correct application of the tools becomes easier.”

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