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Q & A with Alison Burgess

December 1, 2021

Alison Burgess, our new head of Operational Excellence, Base Metals, pictured on right, was recently at our operations in Sudbury where she went underground in three of our mines with a handful of mine managers, supervisors and colleagues including Alfredo Santana, our new COO, North Atlantic and Asian Refineries, pictured on left. Photo: Vale Archive

As the new head of Operational Excellence for our Base Metals business, Alison Burgess is part of the leadership team that is supporting Mark Travers, executive vice president of Base Metals, in transforming our business through the Vale Production System or VPS.

It’s a big job indeed! But Alison, who joined our company in October, is an expert in unclogging bottlenecks and alleviating pain points using Lean, Gemba, 5S, Kaizen and Visual Management tools. “I enjoy enabling performance breakthroughs,” she told Vale News on a Teams.

Learn more about Alison in the following Q & A, what she has been up to over the last month and her plans for VPS-ing our Base Metals business.

Q: You come from the retail and manufacturing sectors. What attracted you to mining?

A: I’ve worked for companies that are trying to implement improvements at critical junctures in their life cycles. And while the industries are different, the scale is similar and the areas of Safety, Environment and ESG are in my wheelhouse. I also think it sometimes takes fresh eyes to see pathways to performance breakthroughs.

Q: You’ve helped other companies with their own versions of VPS. What do you think of ours?

A: VPS hits the three main elements that you need to have integrated to be successful: Leadership of managers, supervisors, HR; Technical, includes Safety and Risk Management; and Methodology like 5s. The VPS triangle is an excellent way to illustrate these three elements, and to show how they are all connected. When any one of these three elements are out of sync, it affects production and morale so to be successful, they need to be in concert with each other.

Q: Your role here is to oversee a deeper and broader implementation of VPS across Base Metals globally. How will you do that?

 A: The first thing I need to do is actively, truly listen to people. Everyone comes to work to do a good job and be safe doing it. So, when something isn’t clicking, we need to understand why. Once we understand the problem, we need to implement a solution that is tailored, fit for purpose and properly integrated, and it needs to make sense. Employees must understand how it all connects to our larger business goals: Why is it important? How does it affect other areas of our business? VPS is really about integrating the business to a common goal, working together to be safer, environmentally sound and productive. We don’t need to overhaul VPS. We just need to find the things that are falling through the cracks, and we need to do this with a sense of urgency – but safely, always

Q: You’ve already travelled to Sudbury and Port Colborne and will be going to Brazil in December. What has stood out to you about our company so far? 

A: I have met so many amazing people already who are doing great things. In Port Colborne, the 100-day VPS challenge just wrapped up. I saw different people from different areas – Technology, Operations, HR – coming together to break down a big problem into bite-sized pieces within a timebox. (In Agile principles, a timebox is allotting a fixed, maximum unit of time to complete a task.) As we go along, I think it’s important to communicate our wins so we can share best practices and successes. 

Q: How would you like to see our wins communicated?

A: I’m a big fan of storytelling and using visuals: cross-functional teams sharing stories about overcoming challenges and the best practices they’ve developed to meet targets and work safely. Visits between sites and countries is ideal when it’s determined to be COVID-19 safe to do so. Getting people together to think of ways to get things done – not to discuss the work itself, rather to brainstorm the work of VPS. By that I mean creating sprint teams and timeboxed workshops to solve problems as they arise, quickly and effectively. This is a more effective way to work than having weekly team meetings.

Q: What’s next for you? 

A: Over the last month, I’ve been getting a flavour of what our Base Metals locations and areas are doing, discussing how they can be better codified and tailored and how to get VPS deployed. I want to see more sharing of best practices. Everyone I have met has been kind-hearted and generous with their time and extensive knowledge. The culture at Vale is very warm. I’m enjoying meeting people and learning about the business, and I can’t wait to see more sites and meet more people in the coming months. 

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