Operational Discipline in Steel Industry

Operational Discipline in Steel Industry

Operational discipline means complying with a set of ‘well thought out’ and ‘well defined’ processes, and consistently executing them correctly.

Striving to achieve operational excellence is one of the most important contributors to the steel industry’s sustainable performance and growth. Steel organization which reach for a higher level of operational excellence reap numerous benefits namely (i) a systemic, evolving and effective approach to its operations (ii) a continually productive and innovative workforce, and (iii) an organization which consistently achieves sustainable growth and increasing valuation.

It is not uncommon to confuse operational discipline with operational excellence. While the two are closely linked, yet the latter cannot be realized without the former.  Operational discipline is but one important component among others which one can find on the path of the operational excellence.

DuPont defines operational discipline as ‘the deeply rooted dedication and commitment by every member of an organization to carry out each task the right way every time’. In short, operational discipline can be stated as ‘everyone in the organization doing it right every time’. It means complying with a set of well thought out and well defined processes, and consistently executing them correctly. It is an essential ingredient when trying to achieve operational excellence.

Operational discipline provides an organized and systematic way to complete tasks and implement operational changes through a fundamental set of procedures which are specific to the steel organization’s unique product. Regardless of the final products of the steel plant, operational discipline increases reliability and decreases the risk of the occurrence of a high magnitude incident.

This is much easier said than done. However, building a culture in the organization around the pillars of operational discipline is the most effective way towards the achievement of this goal of doing it right every time, especially in a complex operating environment existing in an steel organization.

Operational discipline not only improves the safety but also improves the execution and performance of the work practices across the steel organization to a point where management and employees consistently and continuously address the day-to-day operational needs of the organization in a timely, safe and efficient manner.

Operational discipline can also be considered as a mindset and commitment to strict adherence to standards, processes, and rules which govern operations in groups or individuals. It encompasses multiple operators, teams, production units, different departments or simply the entire organization. It exemplifies professionalism and encompasses strict adherence to established rules and procedures as well as rigidity. The actionable part of the operational discipline mindset is the mechanism which establishes and maintains forms, rules, processes, or customs. With strict adherence to these processes the operationally disciplined steel organization is able to safely and successfully conduct operations in the high risk areas.

Since the steel organization has high risk operations, the high reliability of the processes in the steel organization is a big necessity. Hence steel organization benefits to a large extent by making operational discipline a cultural norm in the organization.

Operational discipline determines how the employees act as a team or individual, how they communicate, how they resolve issues, how they perform maintenance, how teammates back each other up, and how they foster ownership. It is very often believed that the difference between successful high risk operations and unsafe operations lie in how operationally disciplined a team is at following established processes, maintaining established standards, and how well they truly embrace a no-nonsense approach to execution. Disciplined employees, no-nonsense adherence to established standards and processes, before, during, and after operations is what makes the operation of the steel organization great.

The methodology of ‘Plan – Brief – Execute – Debrief’ is an operational framework (Fig 1 ) which drives the operational discipline and is necessary to close execution gaps and prevent errors and crises. Employees are to be well-trained in this methodology so that they have the processes which equip and empower them better to work together, to develop collaborative plans, maintain accountability, seamlessly execute processes, and then debrief events to gather lessons learned for the next operational cycle. The result is continuous improvement in safety and performance of the steel organization in even the most hostile operating environments.


Fig 1 Framework for operational discipline

In some of the simpler areas of the steel organization, may be the work activities are more straightforward and linkages are fewer and better understood and it may be easier to ensure employees do the right thing, the right way, every time. In these areas procedures and the work instructions can be written with precision to describe how to complete every task, accounting for every variation or possible condition. But in the complex environments existing in the most of the areas of the steel organization, it is very difficult to anticipate every situation which the employees may face and to understand all of the complex linkages that may impact the work of the employees.

Hence, in addition to develop a descriptive list of activities in the form of procedures and work instructions to help employees to do the right thing, the right way, every time, another effective approach can also be adopted in the steel organization in the form of building a specific and robust set of values, or principles to govern actions and behaviours in all the possible situations which can be encountered.

One of the most powerful aspects of operational discipline is that it drives people to understand what they do, but why they do it. The biggest obstacle to achieving operational discipline is not that the rights tasks, activities, and processes are not identified, but that work is looked at as ‘checking the box’ with no underlying system to tie everything together and little appreciation for the unanticipated. In fact, in complex operating environments it takes a purposeful effort to be able to count on employees to do the right thing, the right way, every time.

In order for someone to do the right thing, the right way, every time, a number of conditions must exist. The employees must know what the right thing to do is and why. They must also know what the right way to do it is and why. They must reassess the right thing and the right way over time to confirm that there is not a better approach. They must have a broad understanding of the operation to know how their work impacts other’s work and is impacted by the work of others. Finally, they must be dedicated and willing to always do the right thing and not taking the easy way while expecting the same from their co-employees. These behaviours all rest on a very specific set of pillars which define and support a culture of operational discipline.

Just as it is important to understand the background and rationale for each of the pillars, it is important to understand they are self-reinforcing and all of the pillars are required together to drive operational discipline.

It is sometimes thought that the operational discipline can have a negative meaning. For example, it is sometimes interpreted as a means to punish behaviour and actions which are not in line with expected norms. It is also sometimes thought that operational discipline imposes rigid, inflexible command-and-control procedures which stifle free thought and innovation within the employees of the organization. Neither of these is the case. In fact, the word discipline comes from the Latin word ‘disciplina’, which refers to teaching and learning.

When the steel organization employs operational discipline as a means of providing more predictability across their organizations, certain jobs in the organization reach higher levels of efficiency, contributing to fewer mistakes and better quality. As a result, time and opportunities open up for everyone to focus on improvement in the performance and results. There has a ripple effect of benefits, each having the power to unleash quick and continuous improvement, as well as waves of innovation.

Effective operational discipline can be seen day in and day out within high-risk industries like steel plants, where the consequences of an accident can be so catastrophic that the importance of reliability raises itself to a very high level. The high-reliability steel organization has to nearly achieve always an “error-free operations” and hence needs a strong operational discipline. A small mistake may not necessarily lead to catastrophic consequences in a steel plant, but the steel organization along with its stakeholders certainly benefit from raising performance to higher levels of excellence through operational discipline..

Pillars of operational discipline

Pillars of operational discipline support the goals of safety and production. These two goals are generally considered mistakenly by management of some organizations as the opposing goals to be balanced. But both the safety and the production depends on the same critical operation and organizational behaviours. The pillars of operational discipline also support operational excellence in the organization. The seven value drivers of operational discipline in the organization are (i) safety,(ii)  environmental, (iii) productivity, (iv) quality, (v) compliance, (vi) yield, and (vii) cost.

There are five important pillars of the operational discipline. These are (i) integrity, (ii) level of knowledge, (iii) questioning attitude, (iv) formality, and (v) forceful watch and team back up. The steel organization is to recognize that these pillars are to work together to support each other to achieve operational discipline and support excellence across the seven value drivers given above. Understanding the pillars, the rationale behind them, and the intended outcomes they are driving towards is necessary for their successful implementation. Without this, individual pillars can result into a negative approach and may justify actions which are counter to the operational discipline.

Individual integrity and the organizational integrity both are needed for the operational discipline. Individual integrity means that the individual employees can be relied upon to do what they say, and to do what is right, whether or not someone is watching. Individual employees are to be able to rely on each other and their word is accepted and believed upon by peers, subordinates, superiors and the organizational management. Knowing how employees behave and what they do leads to a safer work environment, allows accurate planning, reduces waste, harmonizes activities, and drives higher productivity. Without Integrity, there is no reliability, there is no confidence, and there is no trust.

Organizational and individual knowledge is necessary for the operational discipline in the organization. Organizations are to continually enhance their as well as their employees’ knowledge. Individual employees need to have sufficient knowledge to determine what the right thing is to do and how to do it. In a complex operating environment existing in the steel organization the level of knowledge required is to extend beyond the employees’ immediate work areas as well as their just knowing the work procedures or where to find information. It means employees are to understand the broader systems and environments they work in to a deep enough level so that they can identify abnormal conditions and potential hazards, react effectively to unanticipated situations, and be able to back each other up.

Operational discipline requires questioning attitude amongst the employees of the organization. Employees in the steel organization are to constantly ask themselves such questions as (i) what can go wrong, (ii) has something changed, (iii) whether things are same as they seem to be, (iv) what they do not know which they are supposed to know, and (v) what might others be missing etc. This proactive questioning is critical for the surfacing of the issues, learning of new things, and backing others up. A questioning attitude does not mean there is a lack of trust in others or a belief that the employees are not prepared to complete the task at hand. On the contrary, it comes from vigilance and a sense of chronic unease (a belief that there may be better ways of doing things), and that the best way to manage/mitigate risks is by proactively identifying and addressing them.

Employees of the steel organization having operational discipline respect their roles, follow procedures, act with professionalism, communicate and report information in exact and prescribed terms, and respect rules. They are aware that they are part of the organization which is made up of other employees, facilities, equipment, processes, and procedures that must work in unison. If something can be improved, they use the appropriate channels to formally make those changes. They communicate with one another in a consistent, defined manner to ensure information is reliable and understood. They treat each other with respect and value the roles others play. They respect the facilities they work in and the equipment they use. Housekeeping is important as it represents respect for the facility, equipment, and other employees. When employees understand that they have a responsibility to others, they are mindful of the task at hand.

Steel organization having operational discipline expects commitment from all employees not only to themselves, but also to one another. The concept of ‘forceful watch and team backup’ is rooted in every employee’s understanding that he is part of something larger than himself and he must work in unison with other employees to be effective since no single employee is ever perfect. Employees recognizing the seriousness of the jobs which they do, realizes that  everyone relies on one another to look beyond their own activity to back each other up and ensure that the team as a whole is doing the right thing, the right way, every time. They actively look for what a co-employee may have missed and expect others to do the same in return. They have the courage to step in when it is needed.

As seen from the above description, all the five pillars of operational discipline are self-reinforcing and all of the pillars are required together to drive operational discipline. Each component of operational discipline (doing the right thing, the right way, and every time) is supported in some way by all of these pillars. It takes employees who have the appropriate level of knowledge, behave with Integrity, have a questioning attitude, act with Formality and demonstrate forceful watch and team backup to achieve operational discipline. These pillars of the operational discipline are to work together in a in the manner in which they build off and support each other.  Fig 2 shows the working together of the five pillars of operational discipline.


Fig 2 Working together of the five pillars of operational discipline