The mining industry has a problem. It has worthy aspirations for high technology, digitization, and the progressive performance culture but it lacks the necessary operating platform to support and enable this. Despite as many successes in a tough working environment, the industry is experiencing declining productivity and most businesses struggle to achieve stable, predictable operations and continuous, sustainable improvement. 

In Don’t Digitize Your Rubbish, Andy Sherring explains what lies behind this paradox, why it has occurred, why it is such an important issue right now, what is missing, and how to go about fixing it, presenting a fundamentally better way of setting up operations for short-term and long-term success. 

Built on Sherring’s extensive thought leadership in this space, this is the mining industry’s definitive book about integration and using it as the vehicle for transformational change. It is an essential step for any business aspiring to true operational excellence and anyone who is planning for a digital future should read this first.

This is the Author Hour Podcast, and I’m your host, Frank Garza. Today, I’m joined by Andy Sherring, author of a brand-new book, Don’t Digitise Your Rubbish: Integrate, Simplify, and Systematise Your Operations First.

Andy, welcome to the show.

Andy Sherring: Hello Frank, nice to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.

Frank Garza: Yeah, me too. To kick things off, I’d love to hear about your background in the mining industry. Can you give us a summary of what your career has looked like there?

Andy Sherring: Yeah, sure. It goes back – it seems hard to say it now but — it goes back 40 years, I guess. I was 28 years in the corporate world in operations, mining operations, running mines, running plants and processes in different parts of the world. I started in South Africa in copper mining, went to salt operations in Northwest Australia, and then ran a big coal mine in Wyoming in the US and then back to Perth and Australia, where I was brought in to help sort of reshaped the technology and innovation group in that region, get much closer to the business and add a lot more value through the technology innovation piece.

That led me to get very close to the iron ore business, and this is all part of Rio Tinto. I led the design and delivery of really interesting and groundbreaking world first in the mining industry, a remote operation center, which from a thousand kilometers away, we ended up operating 13 mines, four ports, 1,500 kilometers of rail from a thousand kilometers away. It is quite an amazing thing and with the really strong mandated integrated planning function.

That was a segue for me, after doing that and it was highly successful. Everyone in the world is fascinated to hear more about what could be done with this and it was really a segue for me then to go into independent consulting which I did for five years, worked with most of the big mining companies around the world in North and South America, Africa, Australasia. [I] got to really work out what was missing in the mining industry and how we could make the mining industry a lot better, which had been a passion of mine, and an observation that seems to be a really crazy world for the most part in operations.

And surely, there’s a better way of doing things more systemically and sustainably and you could say I cracked what I felt was the missing link — which is integration and I guess we’ll talk more about that — and then realized that once you crack that, unless you can shift the mindset of our leadership team, it’s actually worth nothing. So at that point, I partnered with and co-founded and I’m now the CEO of NextGenOpX, which is a management consulting company with a difference. Again, we’ll probably talk more about that but we focused totally on integration and how to systematize improvement.

So, instead of being a merry-go-round, it’s more systemic and sustainable. That’s my background, worked all over the world, all different commodities, very strong operating background and that’s a feature of our team as well. We’re not career consultants by any means, we are operators who have experienced the craziness of operations and are driven by trying to find a better way and we really set out to change the industry for the better. That’s our goal really.

Frank Garza: Who did you write this book for? Who would you say is your target audience?

Andy Sherring: I guess, that’s a good question. I wrote it for, as I said, with the aim of changing the industry for the better and fixing some things that are fundamentally pulling the industry in the wrong direction and so, I think it will be of interest to anyone in the mining industry, in operations, in business improvements, in digitizing operations. 

 So at any level but primarily, I guess, this is built around the mining industry, the principles of integration absolutely generic and that’s really important but it’s really probably mostly aimed at people who can change the industry for the better.

You could say the senior leadership of organizations but you know, you can change the organization for the better at a small level or larger level or a massive corporate global level but it’s really aimed at people who have the ability and courage to make transformational change in the industry. Generally, towards the senior end are going to hopefully find this most thought-provoking and will end up doing something about it.

Successful Digitization Requires Integration and Alignment

Frank Garza: Okay, and you’ve alluded too, you know, there’s problems in the mining industry that need to be addressed, chapter one of your book in fact is titled “The Industry Has a Serious Problem and It’s in a Vulnerable Position.” Can you talk more about the state of the mining industry and some of the problems they’re facing?

Andy Sherring: Sure. First of all, this is generalizing but this is a very true generalization. The industry struggling with productivity, whereas I could say most industries but certainly a lot of industries, if you look at their productivity over a period of decades, it continues to improve, you know? You’ve got higher technology, you’ve got bigger equipment, better equipment, more understanding, better data analytics, et cetera.

But despite all of this, we’re seeing within the mining industry, productivity is going backwards. It tends to be driven by a sort of price cycle and that’s a problem in itself. It’s highly reactive as an industry to price. Price goes up and you throw everything at it and the price drops and you cut back everything and it’s sort of this boom-and-bust approach.

It’s very reactive and it’s become very short-term focused, focused on short-term improvements rather than long-term sustainable value. Long-term shareholder value used to be the mantra and it’s become short-term share price is the sort of driver. So what we’re seeing is that operations are really struggling with getting the basics right. 

Integrated planning, disciplined execution, continuous sustainable improvement, it is very — it’s become very reactive, and that in itself should be a real driver because this is enormous. I mean, tens of percent of potential value is lost there and I’m talking, 20, 30, 40% potential value is lost in the interphases across operations.

That should be reason enough for companies to really go after improving this but the fact is that the whole industry is in the same boat. So relatively speaking, everyone is reasonably bad if you want. I don’t want to paint — mining does a lot of great things, no question about it and it’s a wonderful industry and I love it, you know? I’m aiming here at trying to improve things further. I’m not trying to criticize something, these are really deep problems. 

That should be in itself a driver but actually, the biggest, the bigger driver that we’re seeing now is that the world knows it is moving towards higher technology and the digital future. There is a little bit of vagueness about what that means but I think the industry is getting clearer on that but digital and technology is going exponentially fast. You know, in the next five years, it’s going to be a huge impact. In the next 10 years is going to be absolute transformational.

Operations are kind of sliding backwards for reasons we might chat about later on but that’s a paradox, that’s a problem, you know? The thought that you can actually just digitize everything and that’s going to be the silver bullet solution and all these pesky people problems are going to go away — and challenges — is crazy and anyone who understands operations know instinctively that if you, and hence the name and title of the book, if you digitize your rubbish, things that are dysfunctional misalign, fragmented, siloed. If you digitize that, you’re basically automating that rubbish. 

You need to deal with these problems in the industry and the supplies to most operational type of industry as from what we’ve seen, you need to address that first. What we do is we use integration as a vehicle and it’s a brilliant vehicle because it looks at the organization and the operations through a different lens, almost like from the side with a big bright torch, suddenly you can see what’s wrong. 

And we use integration to simplify, clarify, focus, declutter operations and that is a wonderful starting point for digitization. You clean that up, you get really clear on what you’re doing, you align everyone and everything around the business strategy and then you clear the decks of all stuff that’s been pushed on the poor old operators in the business over decades [that] we never take the time to clear out. 

So you clean all of that up, that’s a perfect precursor to digitization but to just jump into digitization is a very dangerous thing to do and unfortunately, most of the big consulting firms playing in this space don’t understand the operational challenges in enough depth to really get into that and the operations people are so busy operating, they are struggling.

Frankly, unless you’ve got this lens of integration clear on your head, it’s almost impossible. It’s just a bunch of things that you start tackling, whereas the answer to this as holistic, systemics, sustainable and very structured. Not cookie-cutter but through a very clear framework. So yeah, it’s a very cool place to be playing in because from what we’ve seen, no one else is playing in this certainly to the depth we are.

Frank Garza: So that word “integration” has come up several times in our conversation now. It’s the focus of chapter four in your book. Can you define what that is, what do you mean by integration?

Andy Sherring: I mean, the simple description is it’s about aligning everyone and everything in a business, to pull together in the same direction around delivery of whatever your business strategy is. That sounds simple and obvious but it’s anything but what happens in operations and this is certainly not limited to mining. 

The reality is that people pull in different directions and they gravitate to working in silos and if you look at the way a business is run, there’s a lot of things going on. There’s a lot of overlaps and there are a lot of gaps and people end up getting confused. It’s not clear, it’s not simple, it’s not aligned, it’s not focused as much as it could be and therefore, people pull in different directions.

You know, people automatically think about this as the value chain and which is you know, the process of whatever you’re operating, right? It might be planning the mine, it might be mining processing, logistics, maintenance, et cetera, the different parts of the process and sure enough, there are a lot of gaps in that area but it’s also the gaps between and the misalignment between geographical areas so you might have different mines. 

It might be the organization structure, you’ve got misalignment between management levels, you’ve got misalignment between shifts on a single mine. You’ve got misalignment between the way the long term, the medium term, and the short term is managed. You’ve got misalignment between planning and execution and improvement between people, process, technology. 

There are hundred, certainly, many different dimensions to alignment or misalignment in a business and unless you’ve got a way — sort of simple, single-lens with which looks at things differently — you’re just dealing with all of those things and at the end of the day, it’s just too complicated. Whereas if you have a common lens, to use that term, of looking at integration which cuts through all of those things, it’s really the key to pulling people together.

So that’s one, that’s really what it is but maybe it’s best to explain it as what’s changed, why is integration so important now? Why am I making a big deal of this? Well, the truth is, that over the last 20 or 30 years — certainly in mining but I think it’s from again, from what I’ve seen in other industries — it’s similar. Integration used to happen naturally, you had a management team.

If you, for example, take a mine, an operation, whether you might be a chemical plant or something, your management team, you would go around the table and you’d say, “How long have you been here?” and it would be 24 years, 18 years, 22 years, 16 years. Then there’s the baby and they’ve only been there for 8 years. You’ve got a fabric there, an alignment, a natural integration where you’ve got each other’s backs because you’ve got to live with each other and in 20, 30 years ago operations were more left to their own devices, more autonomous. 

What you’ve seen shift is a massive increase in complexity, so there is more safety environment, community compliance, more data coming out of your ears data but somehow less clarity about what’s going on. A lot more corporate initiatives and centrally driven things, so there is less autonomy. There is more noise if you want and in the operator’s, the GM’s operations role. 

Combine with that increased complexity, you’ve got this decrease in “capability” and it is not competent by any means, it’s capability. Now, you go around the table, “How long have you been here?” “Six months.” “A year and a half.” “Two years but I am leaving next month.” “I arrived last week” and people know naturally, it is not a criticism it is just a fact of life. People in roles for shorter periods and you’ve lost that tenure in teams that caused that natural integration. 

Both of those things that complexity and the tenure are things you can’t control right? They’re the reality of life. They are a part of the change, the shift we’ve made but the problem is that we continue to operate in exactly the same way as we did 20, 30 years ago and that is just plain dumb because those two things combined are a profound change. The essence of this integration that used to happen naturally now needs to be systematized. 

That’s the essence of it. You now need to be more systemic about how you drive and enable and embed and sustain and turn into a culture, integration. How do you embed it into everything you do, that’s the answer because in the absence of that, you’ve got this huge complexity, lots of turnover and people are just chasing the wheel and each new manager that comes in, the first thing they do is they clear the decks.

They brush their hand across the table, “Right, now, let’s have a look what we’re going to look at” and they drive improvement for a few years. The next person comes in, they sweep the desk clean again and they look and they say, “Right, what’s going on here?” and it is just a constant reinventing the wheel. The mining industry is full of very smart people and they tried to deal with this but in the absence of a structured way of looking at this and maintain the integration is that key, it is almost an impossible task. I hope that answers your question. 

Improvement is Systemic and Sustainable

Frank Garza: Yeah, it does and then, you end the book in the last chapter with a five-step guide for integrating your business and I wanted to dive into at least one of these. The first one is approach it as a journey not a big bang and closely engage your leadership. Could you please elaborate on that one a little bit or if there is another one of the steps you’d rather elaborate on? I just love to hear a little bit more. 

Andy Sherring: I think that is a really good one to pick up on, Frank. You know, I always say a perfect solution that is not owned by the leadership team is worthless, absolutely worthless. You’re better off having something that is half right that is owned and driven and committed to by the leadership team. 

This is definitely about a different way of working and this is the ultimate challenge where you have in our sort of mission of trying to change the industry is that you’re dealing with decades of paradigms. This is the way the mining industry has always worked and you can say there’s a smarter way of doing it but some would say, “I don’t need this. I can just come and kick back, get stuff done” and they’re quite right. They can and it works. 

That is how leaders are developed in the industry and then you say, “Yes but what happens when you leave?” and then there is a bit of an awkward silence and then usually the answer is, “Well, that’s not my problem.” And there lies the essence of the problem for the industry. It is not their problem. It is their problem, it should be their problem and this is part of the problem or part of the challenge we try to change here. 

So, I mean my view is that an improvement that is not systemic and sustainable is not an improvement. The idea that an improvement is something where you drive improvement for a year, a year or two, and then you move onto your next role and then that all falls in a heap two or three or five years later. Certainly five years later, people can’t even remember what was done, you know? That is not an improvement and that is something fundamentally that needs to change. 

So this is about shifting mindsets and doing things smarter, simpler, more focused, clearer and one of the wonderful things about what we’re doing is simplifying. It is making it easier for people to do their jobs and we see this response from people. I mean, we have people — we have heard the quote from frontline leaders saying, “This has changed my life. I now know before I go underground, before I even set foot underground, I know what I’m going to go down and see because it is that clear and simple and structured,” as oppose to you go down there and you find out when you get down there kind of thing.

So, the leadership of change is absolutely central to everything and it is again, one of our strengths. I think our three in NextGenOpX, the company, the three key differences are our integrative operating model, it is a unique approach to very structured approach to this, not a cookie-cutter but it is a framework and a guideline. 

Number two is our leadership-led co-designed approach, and I emphasize that because it’s got to be co-designed with the leadership, and the third one is having an A-team of operations people not consultants, you know, people who are career operations people who know what’s going on. 

So if you — and that’s all a bit of a background to answering your question — approach that as a journey not a big bang. Too often, companies take on big transformational change. You put a big team together and they study like crazy and work out this new approach and then you bring in a change management director and you implement this big thing onto the poor operations guys who are trying to run their day job all the time. 

It doesn’t work, you know? You haven’t brought those people along on the journey. So we are very much about a very structured approach, which is going to deliver a long-term goal but actually working out the long-term goal of change, which might be digitization and technological transformation. It is actually not that hard, the real skill in this comes in how do you sequence the staging of lots and lots of change, which pulls the whole organization in a direction towards that end game.

If you just designed something great and implement it onto an operational team, they won’t own it. It’s a different challenge altogether to say you got to design something that when the focus goes away, it will continue to pull in that way, in that direction towards where you want it to be going. It doesn’t rely on the big stick and the loud voice to drive this change. You’re actually embedding it into the whole fabric and the culture of the organization. 

That’s kind of a broad way of saying this has to be done with engagement of the leadership otherwise you’re dead in the water. It’s the only thing that we’ve seen that actually leads to transformational change. The industry, very sadly, is littered with initiatives and operations are initiative to death and they’re sick of it. It is not transformational, it’s just last as long as the next — until the next initiative comes along and that is what we have set out. 

If we’re trying to achieve transformational change with our operating background, that’s absolutely front and center of what we are trying to avoid. We are trying to do something deep and meaningful and long-lasting. 

Frank Graza: Well, writing a book is such a feat, so congratulations on finishing this and getting it out into the world. Before we wrap up, is there anything else about you or the book that you want to make sure our listeners know? 

Andy Sherring: I echo what you’re saying, it is a very hard thing writing a book and you start with a clean sheet and you got to work out your message and it’s — I think I said somewhere in the book, I have learned that it is not for the fainthearted but it is something that is hugely rewarding I think to — [what] I’ve strived to do in writing this book is to bring a very complex subject to the table and to structure your thoughts and the way you tell that story in a way that is meaningful and helpful. 

You know, in each of the — I’ve got those five chapters, you talked a bit about and each of those I’ve got two sections and each of those sections is broken down into observation. So it is very practical about what we see in the workplace and then there’s a little bit of a deep dive into some of the principles. Then we talk about, “Okay, so what’s the solution?” There is a graphic for each of the sections and then it finishes up with a checklist of things very simple bulleted checklist of some things. 

Questions you might ask yourself about your own operation and I think people will find that quite thought-provoking. I have really gone out of my way to try to keep this simple and structured. There is a summary of a few pages, which summarized the whole book at the back. So it is very important people understand the whole context and the storyline of the point I am trying to make in the book, I have put a lot of effort into making this as easy as possible to follow. 

I really do hope that people find it interesting, thought-provoking, and most importantly that it causes them to change and see that there is a smarter way of doing this. Sometimes people say, “You know, this sounds quite odd.” There is actually, well, I’ve got in the book a Dilbert cartoon. I love Dilbert and there is a lovely cartoon of the boss with a funny sprouting hair talking to the team and saying, “We’re bringing in a director of change management to manage this new change we’re making into the organization.” 

Dilbert puts up his hand and says, “Wouldn’t it be easier just to design something that’s simple and intuitive to follow?” and the boss thinks for a second, and he said, “That sounds harder.” 

Frank Garza: That’s a classic Dilbert right there. 

Andy Sherring: Classic Dilbert. So yeah, people sometimes say this sounds quite hard and it is not straightforward but I always counter that with, what is the alternative? Are you going to allow just total degrees of freedom or lots of degrees of freedom and dysfunctionality and misalignment, is that easier? Because the current life in operations — and I am sure it goes beyond mining, it is certainly the case in mining — it is a hell of a place to work. 

It is tough, it is uncompromising, and that I say that with the greatest of respect for mining because these are tough people doing a tough job in tough conditions. They just fight on dealing with getting things done despite a lot of things that are pulling in the wrong direction and for businesses to step back and say, “Let’s spend a little bit more time and effort and money on actually making it easier for people to do their jobs.” 

There’s a radical thought instead of just throwing money at new technology and new equipment, this is a space that is desperately needed, and if you see the shift in the youth coming through today. They don’t have the patience to go and work in a dysfunctional organization, they want something slick and modern and smart and the answer to that is we tend to jump into as, “Well, let’s go for high technology and bright shiny fancy things.” 

No, it is the dysfunctionality that will bring people down and it can and it should be much easier for people to succeed. That is really the focus of everything we’re trying to do. To make it easier for people to do the jobs they’re desperately trying to do today and that’s why the response we get from operations, certainly from the front line and through the middle management and up to the upper management certainly when you get to the enlightened ones up there is making their lives easier and that’s a very good thing. It is a change actually from what is typically done in other industries. 

Frank Garza: Andy, this has been such a pleasure. The book is called, Don’t Digitise Your Rubbish: Integrate, Simplify, and Systematise Your Operations First. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you? 

Andy Sherring: I am not a huge social media engager but I am on LinkedIn and we’re changing that — I am changing that — and with this book, I would be pushing a much greater presence and I really hope that we can generate some really good deep discussion within the mining industry but I am also very excited to do that outside the mining industry and beyond that, our website, 

You’ll find out a bit more about us and me and my colleagues and a great team of extremely diverse thinkers, some of them the best smartest thinkers in the operational space around. So we are out there but yeah, I hope to be generating through this book a lot of discussion and get a copy of the book and have a read. I think you will find it interesting. 

Frank Garza: Thank you, Andy.

Andy Sherring: Thanks a lot, Frank.