Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems in Mining

Mining managers want stable and predictable results. Constraints in terms of quality process control limits govern behaviour. When a deviation happens within the limits, problem-solving methods like root cause analysis are used to restore conformance. This type of problem is absolutely fixable and deemed complicated.
A “wicked” or intractable problem is different; it is complex and lies beyond the Upper Control Limit.

The Australian Government understands how difficult wicked problems are to resolve. 
“Tackling wicked problems is an evolving art. They require thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them. They often require broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches. This may result in the occasional failure or need for policy change or adjustment.”

Wicked problems are pervasive in the mining industry. Consider land degradation neutrality, climate change advocacy, local community benefits, disruptive innovation impacts. These won’t go away; actions will only improve or worsen each case. At the company level, wicked problems are commonly expressed as human exasperations.

  • As an executive, you’re frustrated with events that unexpectedly emerge to disrupt production.
  • As a manager, you’re angry when corporate performance statistics don’t reflect the tireless effort required to keep things running locally.
  • As a supervisor, you’re frustrated with fault finding in people and blaming individuals for mediocre results that are beyond their control.
  • As an engineer, you’re disillusioned by past innovative programs that started with a bang and then either withered away or had the budget pulled. 
  • As a safety professional, you see the paradox of workers needing to adjust task behaviours due to varying work conditions while attempting to comply with rigid rules.
  • As a tradesperson, you can sense worsening mine conditions but feel powerless in voicing your concerns.

Have we reached a plateau in our ability to improve on each of these issues individually as well as collectively? Peter Senge claimed: “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions”. Steve Jobs said we need to think differently. But Albert Einstein says it best:

Contact info

Hendrik Lourens
Sydney, New South Wales
[email protected]