Man vs System

“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”

So wrote Frederick Winslow Taylor, often called the father of management consulting, in the introduction to his 1911 seminal classic “The Principles Of Scientific Management”.

Taylor, born into a wealthy Quaker family, whose ancestor was one of the original Mayflower Pilgrims, turned down going to Harvard University to instead become an apprentice patternmaker and machinist. His passion for scientific management was motivated, he wrote, to help America prevent what he saw as “our larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient.”

For some reason, this line from Taylor sprung to mind recently when I had cause to pull out a mine planning effectiveness review we completed years ago for one of the major mining houses. Time and technology has marched on and the industry has had a few more ups and downs however the observations made then seem to be still relevant today in some areas and I thought they were worthy of sharing.

The outcomes that we were asked to investigate were low levels of plan compliance as well as significant deviation to design and product quality – in summary a range of undesirable mine planning outcomes. It would be easy to suggest that we should all just “try harder” and then we would get better outcomes, but if it were all that easy the hard working teams in our planning departments would have fixed it ages ago. Instead we asked ourselves and the team “why” this is happening, not just “what” is happening. If we can understand the “why” we might have a chance of really addressing the root causes and making solutions stick. We used the simple five whys technique (which I love) and captured the outcomes in the following tree.

The first level of why was either the work was not completed on time (or at all) or it wasn’t to the required quality to allow the optimal decision, action or direction. One of my personal interests is the maintenance and continual lifting of professional standards for Mining Engineers so the branches containing “Standards Not Defined”, “Standards Not Part Of The Work” or “Systems Not Understood” were of particular interest to me. One of the inevitable requirements of “scientific management” is to constantly improve the standard of one’s work.

With the tools we have today it is quick to knock out a schedule.

I recall being in a meeting where the mine planning consultant noted that “they could knock out 100 schedules today if we needed”. While not doubting the capability of the individual and certainly the tools and computing power are there, whether or not you can knock out 100 schedules in a day might depend on how you define completing a schedule. Another way to view that is what system and standard of work are we following to develop that schedule.

One way to start to address the quality of work branch is to ensure the work we do follows a systematic approach and meets a standard. At Enable Advisory (mining consultants in Brisbane) we have developed certain disciplines, adopting a “scientific management” approach, that drive us to value and produce quality outcomes. For us it is more than just changing some inputs or sequences and reprocessing. It includes understanding why we are completing the task, what question are we trying to answer, agreeing on assumptions, reconciling, reviewing and documenting. Sounds a bit like Plan Do Check Act. The following is our take on the PDCA model for planning work which serves as a “standard process” for completing work which you might find useful.


One element where I think there is particular room for improvement is CHECK or reconcile and risk assess. All modelling and scheduling processes require management of tens or hundreds of variables. Mistakes are easily, and often, made. It is critical to use reconciliation tools to ensure no material issues are missed. Reconciliation should be against the previous models, schedules or other bases e.g. mine schedule against reserve block model. The questions I ask myself are:
“Did the change I make have the outcome I expected? If it didn’t, can I understand and communicate the reason why?”

So rather than one hundred iterations, rework can be minimised if the mine planning task is complete; objectives agreed, reconciled, documented and communicated. I should be able to clearly communicate a deep understanding of the problem I was trying to fix and why the outcomes differed compared to the last stable model.

Getting back to Taylor for a moment, I recall how Peter Drucker once summed up his influence:

“On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since – even though he has been dead all of sixty years.”

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