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Case Study: Real-Time Project Management at Rio Tinto

The heavy equipment of coal mining operations is part of a continuous “just-in-time” operation that uncovers coal seams, takes coal from the earth, transports it to crushing facilities, and loads it into railcars for shipment. To avoid breakdowns, maintenance outages must be regularly scheduled. But if an outage takes longer than anticipated, costs skyrocket and commitments to customers are threatened.

Rio Tinto Energy America (RTEA) leadership felt that traditional training with theoretical project applications didn’t meet their world-class project management needs or time-strapped schedules. So RTEA partnered with Kepner-Tregoe (KT) project experts on a unique type of training, called “Learn and Do,” that has training participants apply real-time learning to an active project.

At RTEA’s Spring Creek Mine, “Learn and Do” participants addressed a 30-day, maintenance outage for an electric shovel that digs out 80-foot coal seams and loads coal into trucks—moving 50 cubic yards in a single scoop. RTEA worked with KT using the three phase Learn and Do process.

Phase 1: Project Definition.

This is the phase most organizations fail to include, “in the interest of time.” But this phase has four critical steps before planning begins. 1) create a project statement (Repair #301 for $500,000 in 30 days, starting May 20), 2) create project objectives, 3) develop a work breakdown structure (project to-dos), and 4) identify resources (including the cost of people, materials, equipment). Using this information, management can weigh costs and benefits to determine whether to proceed. In this case, the shovel-outage team moved to Phase 2.

Phase 2: Project Planning.

The project team consisted of five or six core members, but the expanded team had scores of people drawn from maintenance, technical areas, management, contractors, and safety. The team created a Responsibility Assignment Matrix to allocate resources and determine the order and duration of each task, including both a critical path of the tasks that determined the duration of the project as well as tasks non-critical to the timeline. A Network Diagram visually communicated the order and duration of the tasks. Planning examined the costs/benefits, resourced appropriately, anticipated potential problems, and created effective “what if” scenarios.

Phase 3: Project Implementation.

Activities began with a project kick-off, moved to monitor the work, planning any modifications, and finally to closeout and evaluation. The team had set guidelines for communication, monitoring, and reporting. Daily walk-throughs focused on safety, progress, concerns, and next-day plans. The project manager verbally updated the mine manager daily. The primary contractor had to supply a Gantt chart of all daily activities.


The project was finished on time, $18,000 under budget, and all objectives were met. KT has continued to work with RTEA on more than 15 different projects, at several mine sites, in a variety of functions. Some Learn and Do trainees have gone on to full-time project manager roles.

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