Frontline scheduling - short term interval control

Dead ends on the road to integrated planning and short term interval control

At Commit Works, we’ve spent nearly a decade building and implementing integrated planning and short term interval control (SIC) software to bridge the gap between monthly plans and the work done by frontline teams.

The hours we’ve worked with teams on mine sites have given us a comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing operations and the results that they need to achieve. Throughout the years we’ve watched mining companies invest significant amounts of money and time with consultants, software companies and internal teams to develop solutions to this problem – in most cases, they have run into dead ends.

We’ve written this article to share our insights and guide you through the reasons this kind of project often fails to deliver a useful tool to the team at the frontline.

Common approaches

Why are they falling short? Let’s take a look at the three approaches we’ve seen used, which try to build tools for frontline planning and scheduling and short term interval control (SIC) on mine sites around the world.

The MOS consultant approach

Almost every mine we’ve been on has a set of whiteboards, spreadsheets or paper tools for planning, doing, checking and acting on site. Most of the time these were developed and implemented during a Management Operating System (MOS) project.

In one project we recently helped on, the mine had over 65 spreadsheets stitched together with pivot tables and macros. No one on site really knew how all these were supposed to work together and when one thing stopped working the whole system was broken. A massive amount of time was wasted on this operation in pre-planning, planning and lock-in/commitment meetings in the quest for a plan everyone could agree to – and most weeks the plan was wrong within hours of starting.

Spreadsheets and whiteboards developed by MOS specialists, even if they continue to be used on an operation, require considerable manual work in order to keep them going. Their biggest failing, however, is in their inability to produce real cross-functional/integrated planning and scheduling. This is not a safe or reliable way to coordinate a mining operation, and it doesn’t have to be the case.

In-house IT approach

Sometimes, mines or their head offices choose to go it alone, using an internal IT team to build a solution for the sites. Some of these are successful at delivering useful tools to the front line to meet the particular needs of that mining operation.

However, three things are difficult:

  1. The tool is normally very specific to one operation so can’t easily be used on other operations in the group. This means the whole development cost is covered by one site.
  2. In-house projects are often plagued by issues around product design, software integration, scope creep and change management. Many are ultimately left unfinished following changes in organisational structure or redundancies in the company. This is because effective software in this space takes years to get right and many corporate IT departments don’t last that long without change.
  3. To continue to provide value to an operation, certain support infrastructure and people need to be employed. We have heard of mining companies employing customer success and DevOps teams to look after the software they have built in-house. This can last for a while but recently we have seen these teams being disbanded by new leaders looking to save head office costs. In these cases, sites are left with an unsupported system that no one knows how to fix or improve.

Software mashup approach

Often a number of systems are pulled together into an uncomfortable collaboration, or a systems integrator is brought in to create a “system of systems” for work scheduling and production reporting. They might bring planning and Short Interval Control systems with them to implement in the operation, or they may work with a software company to build a customised solution for the specific need.

A recent example in North America saw no less than six software and consulting organisations engaged to collaborate and deliver a planning and Short Term Interval Control solution. They experienced all the integration and “turf war” issues you would expect and, in the end, spent over $14m to deliver something that can now be bought off the shelf from one vendor (us). The team involved in this work were made redundant recently, so the sites have a system without the support they need and the system is, as far as we know, likely to be replaced.

Another angle on this is the “wrong tool forced to work”. For example, it has been suggested by some that “mining is just like maintenance” so you should be able to set up standard jobs in SAP and schedule them using Prometheus to enable frontline planning. Although there have, no doubt, been some successes in plant environments, where the majority of work is maintenance work, it is very hard to get frontline mining teams to use SAP for this kind of planning. You have to look very hard to find a real mining operation where this toolset has been able to provide frontline teams with a shift plan to deliver each shift.

Why is this so hard to get right?

In spite of good intentions, smart people and big budgets, so many projects fail to deliver a long-term solution. Here are some of the reasons why.

Mining is complex and software people seldom understand how mining operations really work

Consider all the moving parts and processes in a mining operation: production, maintenance of equipment, projects, geology, survey, rehab, safety and hazard management, reporting and analysis. And then there are people too: planners, schedulers, coordinators, control room personnel, site supervisors, operators and tradespeople.

Without a comprehensive understanding of how all of these elements fit together, it’s impossible to develop effective software for these people. Our team has spent years consulting, doing “day in the life studies” and coaching supervisors in the field. We understand what they need because we’ve been listening for more than 20 years.

Inadequate feedback from real users

You need to spend a lot of time with users (and care deeply about what they say) in order to build a system that is both powerful and easy to use.

Good software takes a long time to get right and consulting teams charge too much each day to justify having their best consultants help on software development projects. Neither mining companies nor consulting firms are good at software development or support – it’s not core business – so they tend to be expensive and fail to deliver what the site really needs.

Restructuring means short-lived internal software teams

Most internal software teams don’t stay in their roles for long enough to develop, implement and support a system that can achieve effective integrated frontline planning and short term interval control (SIC). Company restructures generally mean that projects are disrupted or the people that built the system will no longer be around or working in the right department to look after what they built.

Too many point solutions

Point solutions concentrate on fixing one specific problem quickly but often fail to connect with other systems. While many mining software suites perform well in their specific areas of influence (such as operational planning, maintenance, reporting, fleet management, safety monitoring, or analytics) there are no other software or technology firms that can provide an end-to-end solution that connects mine plans to all the frontline work that needs to be performed to deliver the plan.

Most of these point solutions are designed the way they are for good reasons, so it can be very hard to get the busy software companies that provide them to adapt their solutions to meet the needs of frontline workers.

There are many solutions available today that support frontline teams – this diagram shows some of the major ones. But note the lack of connection between the various solutions as you proceed from monthly plans through to the detailed work schedules used by crews.

Lack of adoption

To truly get the benefits of planning and Short Interval Control software it’s vital that implementation, change management and adoption of the new system is managed effectively and that ongoing support is available.

What should you do?

So, what is the best approach? Should you pay a software developer or outsourcer to build customised software that works around your mine’s current systems? Or start from scratch with an integrated provider of planning software? Or would a MOS consulting firm give you the spreadsheets you need to streamline the management of your mining operations?

The technology and innovation projects in the above examples have struggled to deliver tools that the crew at the frontline actually use in the way they were intended to be used.

It pays to avoid these kinds of mistakes, but how?

How Commit Works has succeeded where others have failed.

Commit Works is the only provider of a comprehensive, fully integrated frontline planning and scheduling system (Fewzion) that works with a short term interval control (SIC) app and visualisation software (Visual Ops) to give a complete picture of mining operations, every day, every shift.

In developing our Commit Works products, we built a minimum viable product (MVP) of Fewzion for Anglo American’s Moranbah North mine in 2011. We have continued to develop, support and improve it since. We’ve completed successive implementations for other Anglo American, BHP, Glencore, South32, Peabody, Rio Tinto, Mastermyne and Barrick Gold sites over the past six years. Implementations have taken six to 16 weeks to complete and have all delivered significant improvements in production and safety metrics. Crucially, we continue to support each of these sites and regularly release new features (our latest release is version 19.1) so that they get the benefit of the experience we are always building.

From monthly scheduling of personnel and resources all the way through to the most granular task-based details of a single shift, our mining software allows management to see their operations clearly and make better decisions, whilst empowering frontline teams to get the job done more efficiently and safely.

Implementations of our software have helped deliver massive production and safety improvements for some of the world’s largest mining companies. Most recently a site experienced a 45% increase in mucked tonnes per day within weeks of everyone using the system. You too could get these kinds of results.

Want to hear more about our mining software and how we’re making mines work better? Get in touch or watch a video to see how we do it.