Driving improvement in the workplace

'HR needs to play a role in supporting the business to be bolder.' | Photo: Damien Pleming

In pursuit of productivity and a winning culture.

How you let staff be the best and most productive they can is a hot topic in management.

Is it a matter of having the right processes and structures, or more about innovation and ideas?

Eileen Burnett-Kant

Executive global head, Human Resources, Orica

Eileen Burnett-Kant’s appointment as global head of human resources at Orica in March last year marked more than two decades since she first joined the company as a graduate engineer fresh out of Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde.

The company was then called ICI and what might seem like a long-term plan to return to the mining services multinational was, in fact, the result of a career-long motivation to help businesses transform and grow.

This drive for improvement has taken Burnett-Kant all around the world.

With an MBA from the University of Melbourne, she worked as an associate principal for McKinsey & Company for seven years from the mid 1990s, consulting to utilities, retail banking and insurance companies in the UK, US, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

In 2003 she joined what was then Coles Myer as their supply chain general manager.

She moved into various operational roles before becoming the general manager of HR at Coles Supermarkets, an employer of some 90,000 people.

That new role for Burnett-Kant came during Wesfarmers’ acquisition of Coles in late 2007, a reward for her innate grasp of organisational structure and fearless desire to speak her mind.

“Wesfarmers came on board with a very clear plan of what they had to achieve and I had some ideas about how they could achieve it,” she says.

“It was particularly around organisational structure and how the supermarkets and above-store structure should be put in place. I said, ‘This is what I think you should do and I think what you’re planning to do is probably not the best thing’. It was ultimately on the strength of an idea and an approach that I got the job.”

When Burnett-Kant explains the importance of developing structure, systems and processes, the leap from engineering to HR doesn’t seem so great.

“I was very interested in maths and science at school but in an applied way,” she says.

“I was trying to work out how to use maths and science to make things, produce things and run things. I thought the path was through engineering and about halfway through university I realised that I didn’t have an interest in technology per se. I was more interested in the management side of things and how one organised how work got done.

“If I could have articulated at an early stage an interest in HR, then I would have, but I didn’t, and it took me 20 years to figure out where those thoughts could be applied,” she says.
Burnett-Kant describes her approach to HR as deeply strategic, which is perhaps influenced by her experience at McKinsey.

“It’s grounded in numbers and in commercial reality,” she says.

“What does the business actually need from their people? Where and when? On what total people cost and investment? And people’s minds need to be engaged and developed in supporting what the business needs.” 

Burnett-Kant believes that populist ideas of empowering employees can create conflict during times of tight cost control.

"My experience is that sometimes empowerment taken to the limit, for example, self-managed teams, may not be effective in a production context." – Eileen Burnett-Kant

“My experience is that sometimes empowerment taken to the limit, for example, self-managed teams, may not be effective in a production context.”

Burnett-Kant believes that empowerment means very different things to different people.

“I’m very much a believer in controlling one’s own destiny. To me, that means everyone in the business taking the initiative to stay informed and seek out opportunities to develop themselves and make positive choices about what they are doing and why,” she says.

"And in that context, I think it’s very important for everyone to understand where the company is going and what their roles are and what decisions they need to make.”

Burnett-Kant currently faces a significant HR challenge at Orica as the company transitions to become more of a problem solver within the mining industry.

“Part of [Orica’s] DNA is clever research. What its DNA needs to be in the future is research applied to solving customer’s mining productivity problems,” she says.

“You’ve got to change that DNA so that the researchers and the customer-facing people and the manufacturing people all understand that that’s what we are trying to solve and that is ultimately what will pay bills.”

Orica, a global employer of more than 14,000 people, is now placing greater emphasis on customers.

“We are building in a customer language throughout the company and we are doing some work now to help define clearly our value proposition to customers and to share those insights,” says Burnett-Kant.

“We’ve also done work to define how each function supports each other – what we do and how quickly we respond – so that everyone understands how those points of collaboration work and what it is that customers really want from us,” she adds.

“It’s reorganising the business and it’s about rewarding differently and recognising differently, and it’s changing almost all aspects of how people work in the business.”

Over the past year, Burnett-Kant and her global team of 250 HR specialists have implemented a program at Orica called 7 Pillars, which focuses on the company’s vision, values and strategy.

“Almost 12,000 employees in 160 different locations have participated. It’s been a huge commitment but it’s all about giving them context and meaning for the transformation of the business that we are undertaking,” she says.

Burnett-Kant believes companies must look to HR if they are to manage their costs and demonstrate resilience during volatile business conditions.

“I think HR has to play a role in looking at total people costs and ensuring that they are fully supporting the business in whatever transformation and restructuring initiatives are coming,” she declares.

“I think some of the other opportunities are around supporting the business to be bolder in taking on challenges, like improving productivity – whether that is in understanding industrial agreements better or working out how to have better negotiations with team members to get better collective agreement outcomes. HR needs to play a role in supporting the business to be bolder.”

This article is from the October 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.