Four Fearless Females and the Power of Communication


A Story in Celebration of International Women’s Day

L-r: Sheryl Hobbs, Project Manager, Finning Canada, Simin Sajjadiani, Procurement, Imperial, Farah El Mallah, Reliability Engineer, Imperial & Stephanie Robison, Opportunity Advisor, Imperial

What do you get when you bring together four women, spanning diverse ages and ethnicities? You get the curiosity, smarts, humility and determination needed to drive a step change in profitability at Kearl. Meet Farah, Stephanie, Sheryl and Simin, the team charged with solving a big problem facing Imperial and Finning – reducing the wait times for replacement parts on Imperial’s mine fleet. In 2017/18 the fleet downtime lost to waiting for parts was approaching four per cent in terms of fleet availability and resulted in lost production opportunity potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Simin, Farah & Craig Dicken from Imperial touring Finning's Mildred Lake facility with Sheryl Hobbs.

It all began with a site assessment of Kearl through which multiple improvement opportunities were identified, including the fleet downtime associated with waiting for parts. That’s where Farah came in to start sifting through the data. “We say downtime is waiting for parts, but we don’t record anything about why,” explains Farah El Mallah, Reliability Engineer at Imperial.

Farah’s job was to work with people on the ground to do a root cause factor analysis on the downtime events. As she advanced her analysis, she discovered there were multiple, complex causes for the downtime. Addressing them required broader project management and cross-functional expertise to drive collaboration within and between both companies.

Enter Sheryl Hobbs, Project Manager, Finning and Imperial’s Stephanie Robison, Kearl Opportunity Advisor. Soon Imperial’s Simin Sajjadiani joined the fray from Imperial Procurement.

In the end, with the help of many frontline staff and managers across both companies, this team was able to reduce wait times by a staggering 75 per cent. “I don’t know any other instance where we at Finning partnered with a customer to this level to resolve an issue,” Sheryl says.


How did they do it?

Ultimately, they discovered the solution to every problem was building relationships and improving communication. Go figure!

“One of the basic things we did was open the lines of communication,” says Stephanie “We didn’t have the baggage of being part of the process or knowing the performance history. We could quickly build trust, connect people and strengthen relationships across the companies and  our internal silos.”

Sheryl agrees, noting that all four women are Six Sigma certified, bringing expertise in continuous improvement. “Coming in as continuous improvement specialists, we always know that people are not the problem, and that there is always a rational reason for the way people behave.”

When it comes to building trust and acquiring valuable insights from on the ground, Sheryl notes the importance of recognizing the ‘WIIFM Principle’, which means answering the question ‘What’s in it for me (them)?’ “Instead of saying ‘Here are the numbers, what are you going to do to fix it?’ we explore the challenges people are up against and work together to help them overcome their daily barriers. It came down to tackling the problem, not the people.”

Simin & Farah at Finning's Fort McKay facility.

Another success factor was the team’s ability to quantify the impact that downtime had on the rest of the business and the bottom line.

“One of the first jobs we had to do was put our arms around the prize and understand how big that hit to our profitability was,” says Stephanie. For example, knowing that up to tens of thousands of dollars were being lost per hour of downtime, empowered people to make better decisions based on a clear view of what was at stake.

Another success factor, Simin notes, was the team’s willingness to work with a lot of uncertainty. “We decided to take some educated risks. In the end 90 per cent of the time the solutions worked. Ten per cent of the time they didn’t, and we learned from them. We had a growth mindset and we were not afraid to try something new.”


What we can learn?

When asked if there were any learnings they might impart to the rest of the organization, it came down to several themes: self-ownership, risk tolerance, intellectual humility, curiosity and willingness to embrace change. “It’s important that everyone own the impact they can have on the part of the business they have influence over,” says Stephanie. “Run your part of the business as if it were your own.”

“You can’t wait for someone else to make a difference,” adds Sheryl. “If you want to improve something, reach out and find the right person who can effect that change. The first person you reach might not be the right person, but you just need to keep hunting down that right contact. And when you find them, be fearlessly transparent.”

Congratulations and great work to everyone who was involved in this great project.