Management Visibility Programs

My first experience of what we then called Management Visibility Programs was as a researcher at the Chamber of Mines of South Africa Research Organisation in the 1980’s. I had developed a rather dim view of this kind of visual leadership strategy. This is after having seen it fail quite dramatically on a West Rand mine.

While doing an investigation into the climate of employee opinion on the mine we found that trust in management was particularly poor.  Management had been aware of this. And they sought to remedy the situation with a management visibility programme. This programme had managers walk around the hostels in predetermined routes just as the men were returning from shift.We found that men who had seen the managers on this walkabout trusted management less than men who had not seen them.

From this, I concluded that the management visibility intervention on this mine was an instance of what we had come to refer to as surrogate management. By surrogate management we understood that it is using a stand in or proxy function or intervention. This would be to attend to the human problem. So that enterprise leadership is free to get the job done and maximize profits. The implication of this for the mine was that rather making occasional theatre in a hostel, management should create the conditions whereby those in authority were genuinely there for the people. Therefore, ensuring that supervision had the mandate to care for and grow their subordinates.

Introduction to Visual Felt Leadership

It was with this prejudice that I first encountered what Mark Munroe, the current CEO of Impala, refers to as Visual Felt Leadership or VFL. This was in the course of an intervention that sought to implement the Care & Growth Leadership Model at Lonmin. Where Mark was the Head of Mining Lonmin Operations. At the time Lonmin was a large mine, employing some 26000 people. They had achieved spectacular success under Mark’s leadership.

They achieved safety records that were unprecedented in the mining industry. While at the same time, improving the efficiency of their operations and developing their available ore reserves. From a mining point of view, this was like playing three musical instruments at concert level simultaneously. It was also apparent that Mark’s use of VFL was a key ingredient to this success formula. However, at the time I did not give VFL adequate attention. So I remained somewhat mystified by its role in the Lonmin turnaround.

The effect of Visual Felt Leadership

The opportunity to gain deeper insight into VFL came in the course of a second piece of work I did for Mark in 2018. This time at the Rustenburg operations of Impala Platinum. Mark had been appointed as the CEO of what was then a failing behemoth of a business. It employed 35000 highly unionized people.

Every conceivable criterion whereby one would assess both a mine and a business, was in crisis. The business was massively in debt and the safety record of the mine was appalling. Production was well below target on most shafts and the mine had very few developed reserves. Not to mention, the workforce was notoriously militant. In a short 3 years Mark and his team have turned this operation around. To the point where the mine has just posted a safety record of 7 million Fatality Free shifts. And the mother ship, Implats, is about to post quadrupled profits becoming the darling of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

It would be naive to ascribe the dramatic turnaround of such a large, complex and hide bound organization to a single factor. There is, however, little doubt that the work Mark did on culture played a decisive role in the success of Impala, and Lonmin before. It must also be said that a key ingredient in this culture work was the VFL process. I have spoken to him and others about VFL and over the course of two years. And  I have accompanied him a most of his General Managers on VFL visits. I have come to understand the following about it:

Visual Felt Leadership put into play

  1. Mark personally models the behaviour required for the VFL process. And he does so in such a way as to give clear direction to all leaders on the mine with regard to how this should be done. Every Wednesday morning sees him going underground on one of the Impala shafts. In fact, very few things are seen as this sacrosanct in his diary. This in itself is really unique. I have not seen another CEO of a large mining business who is either able or willing to do that.
  2. He requires all production management to do the same. Wednesday morning at Impala is VFL morning. General managers, managers and Mine Overseers will all be underground visiting workplaces. This is all done according to a plan, so that over a period of time all workplaces are visited.
  3. Mark’s demeanour regarding VFL is one that makes people take it really seriously. He is normally hosted by the leadership of the area he’s going to visit. They brief him about the place he will be visiting on surface before going underground. At this time it is already apparent that Mark has taken on the persona of a coach. Interrogating everything from the technical execution of plans through to labour issues.

Symbols of Leadership

  1. Mark carries a stick with him which he calls a kumba stick. This stick is around 1 meter in length and is subdivided into 10cm sections. In my mind it has come to symbolize the essence of VFL. In the first instance he uses as a measuring tool. When he gets to production panel underground he would gather the crew from that panel around him and he would stick the stick down drill hole on the face. He would use both the length of the stick that got inserted and the angle of the stick to explain to the team involved what was happening in the drilling, the knock-on effect on the blast, the implication for safety and the further implication for production and therefore their bonus.
  2. To my mind, the kumba stick is a meme that encapsulates both VFL and Mark’s approach to mining. It says ‘Call to Standard’. It is not just about achieving the result, the call, at all costs. This also about doing it to do it well. With due attention to process and not just outcome. This means that very little escapes his attention on a VFL visit. If something is not to standard, he will point it out. And sometimes rectify the matter by doing rather dramatic things that would bring the point home to all concerned. I once saw him get a general manager and his entire senior staff push a hopper away from a dangerous area.

Setting a precedent

  1. When Mark finds something that is not to standard he also interrogates matter up the line. Why did a driller not drill to standard. What did the driller’s miner not contribute that had the effect of the driller not drilling to standard? Therefore, what did the shift supervisor not contribute, and so on all the way up the line. This assists both in giving him an understanding of what is required from his role centrally and gives him greater clarity on what his General Managers should be contributing.
  2. Mark does not mince his words and does not let people off the hook easily. When something is not to standard, people are going to hear about it. On the other hand, when he sees something to standard he comments on it.
  3. Throughout all of this his concern for his people is apparent. He is interested in apparent minutiae that would normally miss somebody at his leadership level. Matters such as whether the water in the change room shower is hot enough is of concern to him. More significantly, that his people should be safe at work concerns him deeply. And that is apparent in all his interactions on one of these visits.

Its not only about leadership, but the authenticity of the person behind it

I have no doubt that the Visual Felt Leadership programme made a significant contribution at Impala, as it did at Lonmin. However, it has to be said that you cannot just look at the tool. But you have to look at the hand that wields the tool. I have no doubt that in the hands of another, more expedient and less authentic leader the VFL process could end up with similar results that we saw on that West Rand mine that I quoted before. It is not VFL that accounts for Impala’s success, but authenticity whereby Mark Munroe lives the spirit that resides in the kumba stick. Call to standard.

This has been written up in ‘Beyond Management – Toward Establishing Ethical Business’ by E Schuitema.

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