Tackling orphans and zombies in the mining operational technology space

No, I’m not writing a fan script for The Walking Dead. That show is no longer creating new episodes and the spin-offs are just not that good. That aside, I operate on the OT/IT side of mining, a world of orphans and zombies; technology orphans and zombie projects created by poor planning, bad project management, customized development with no product lifecycle plans, and no program ownership post-project. So, I’ve hired a crack team of orphan adopters and zombie killers.

First off, what is an orphan and what is a zombie in the mining operational technology (OT) space?

Zombie Projects – According to Harvard Business Review, “for any number of reasons, zombie projects fail to fulfil their promise, yet keep shuffling along, sucking up resources without any real hope of a meaningful impact on the company’s strategy or revenue prospects”.

Technology Orphans – Slightly different to zombie projects, technology orphans probably created value for the company, but lacked the ongoing support, maintenance, and roadmap to continue delivering.

Why is mining so rife with these problems? The simplest explanation is that it is easy to justify a project if the mine engineer or continuous improvement engineer can write a good justification. The value created by even 1-2% productivity improvements or 1-2% cost reductions can mean millions of dollars.

The next explanation concerns how mines organize their teams to implement these types of projects. Operational staff focus on delivering the base cubic meters and tonnages to the mine plan. They are frequently supported by the engineering projects’ team to focus on the project work not directly related to daily production. These two groups are often unaligned with conflicting goals. Operations like consistency, predictability, and working to plan. By contrast, project teams like change, improvement, starting something new and moving on to something newer.

This often leads to zombie projects, which never get handed over from the project team to the operations team. They linger, never quite alive, never quite dead, draining resources while the company pays a deployment team over scope. This also leads to orphans: the project team finally hands off to a begrudging operations team, who deny it the attention for maintenance and future improvements needed to deliver the intended value.

Little wonder that more than four out of five mining projects come in late and over budget, by an average of 43%, according to McKinsey.

Tough decisions needed to make mining operational technology successful

This is a difficult assessment. The first step requires sorting the projects’ register and determining which are unworthy of completion. This can be  painful but remember the principles of sunk cost. If the cost has already been incurred, and cannot be recovered, and the future value of completing the project cannot be determined, it is time to kill that zombie.

It may also make sense to meet the project team, the suppliers, and the operational team and hold a frank and honest discussion about project hand-over and what going live looks like. In other words, adopting the orphan. New ROIs can be calculated based on the forward-looking costs, ignoring the sunk costs that are already gone, and assessing the best possible future position. “Intelligent interventions can improve the odds of success – particularly on distressed projects,” says McKinsey.

Hexagon’s service and support is rooted in a proven project management philosophy and can work with customers to identify needs.

Proven project management philosophy underpins Hexagon service and support.

Avoiding zombies and orphans in mining operational technology projects

A more holistic approach to stakeholder engagement in the project planning can help avoid the zombie/orphan problem. It requires a plan to visualize the post-project program prior to starting. This is why we involve a wide audience in the project planning and communication, from the supplier, the mine project team, and the operational program owners. Typically, roles include:

Supplier side:

  • Project Management (PM) – Responsible for keeping the project on time, in scope, and on budget following the principles of PMP® or similar methodology for project deployment. The supplier’s project manager focuses on organizing the service and support team from the supplier and its subcontractors to deliver the project.
  • Subject Matter Expert Principal Engineer (SME PE) – Responsible for the configuration and architecture of the system. The Principal Engineer is the expert in the system and how to apply it to the mine’s unique characteristics. The SME PE will frequently be hands-on in both the system configuration, training and individual autonomous deployments.
  • Software Project Engineers (SW PE) – Responsible for software deployment across the onboard and central server computers.
  • Hardware Technician (HW Tech) – Responsible for physical installation of the system, ensuring smooth initial sign-off, avoiding breakages and easing maintenance later.
  • Trainers – This comprises software and system training, maintenance training and hardware training: effectively, the comprehensive training required to use the system.
  • Change Management – This role assists the mine’s staff in developing and delivering the change management to the new world of autonomy.
  • Supplier Executive Sponsor – Though not a daily role in a project, this position is essential in any large scale, complex deployment. Should issues arise during the deployment that require executive decision-making and action, the executive sponsor provides that leadership.
  • Account Manager – Proactive management of the program post-support to realize ongoing value.
  • Support Engineers – Remote and onsite support staff to reactively ensure timely response to system issues.

These client-focused roles are supported behind the scenes by tiers of support from product management, development, information security, etc. to ensure best practices and quick resolutions to issues experienced during the project.

On the client side, we see similar roles counterbalancing the supplier’s team.

Mine side

  • Mine Project Management (PM) – Responsible for organizing the mine’s resources to deliver the project, ensuring operations, information technology, operational technology, maintenance, and site management are aligned to delivering on-time, on-budget, and within scope.
  • Trainers – Responsible for incorporating the new process into operator training.
  • Operators and Users – The people using the system daily
  • Program Management – While not always part of the project itself, this role is critical to understand at the beginning of the project, to know who will own and run the program after the project concludes. Sometimes these roles are referred to as operational technology (OT).
  • Information Technology (IT) – As an OT ecosystem relies on enabling technology, the IT infrastructure and adherence to IT policies must enable necessary access in a timely manner.
  • Operations – Operations are the end-customer of an OT project. Ensuring they are actively involved in the project is critical to ensure the scope and deliverables are aligned to their objectives and post-project they can support the program.
  • Maintenance – In a reliability-focused program, maintenance is critical.
  • Change Management – Change management from the site perspective cannot be under-estimated. This role ensures the organization, through its people at all levels, is aligned to the change from an old to a new process.
  • Site Executive Sponsor – Though not a daily role in a project, this position is essential in any large scale, complex deployment. Should issues arise during the deployment that require executive decision-making and action, the executive sponsor provides that leadership.

Beyond the site and the supplier are numerous enabling roles. These include the local community, OEM equipment providers, outsourced third parties in IT, equipment maintenance, and others.

Thinking through mining operational technology projects

Beyond delivering in scope, on budget, and on time, the key to a successful project lies in creating lasting anticipated value. Thinking through open and future projects to avoid zombies and orphans is critical to creating that value. The more zombie and orphan projects that hang around, the fewer value-creating projects a mine can focus on.

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