How a simple act of inclusion saved BlueScope hundreds of thousands of dollars

Acts of real inclusion happen in the most unusual places. This one was on a Coke Ovens Battery, and it saved BlueScope thousands of dollars in costs each year. As David Bell, general manager of BlueScope’s Port Kembla operations tells it, the efforts of a manager to understand and act on the ideas of an engineer from a non-English speaking background has already produced documented savings of over $1million between their Baghouse and Oven Filling Optimisation operations; with projected savings of $300,000 in the Battery Heating and Charging Unit.

Over the last decade, a glut of surplus steel coming out of China has flooded global markets putting downward pressure on global steel prices and margins. These pressures have meant that to remain internationally competitive BlueScope’s Port Kembla steelworks has had to lower its cost base significantly. Improvements in operational efficiency required innovation in processes. Enter Charles Chen, originally from China, who works as a Technical Development Engineer at BlueScope’s Cokemaking operations at Port Kembla. Coke is a fuel made from coal and is a major input into the iron making process. Like most people for whom English is a second language, Charles speaks English with an accent, which may require more patience than when speaking to a native English speaker.

Unfortunately, in many workplaces where inclusion is not effectively fostered his ideas would have gone unnoticed. Charles’ colleagues and manager made a concerted effort to listen to Charles, support his ideas, and communicate them to those responsible for the budgets to make them happen. The payoff from that single act of inclusion, which respected and utilised Charles’ experience and unique perspectives, saved hundreds of thousands and contributed to BlueScope’s global competitiveness and cemented Charles’ position as a valuable member of the Port Kembla steelworks

There is ample evidence that diversity is an asset that leads to better problem solving, innovation and employee engagement. However, those benefits are only realised if the diversity, in whatever form it takes, is recognised, accepted and utilised.

A strong contributing factor to the exclusion of immigrants is a reaction to their accents. Sometimes the exclusion results from deliberate prejudice. More often, it is the result of unconscious biases by well-intentioned colleagues who welcome immigrants and other minorities into the workplace, but do not make an effort to understand, engage with and utilise the unique perspectives of those who speak with an accent. As part of the process, the immigrant or minority may either suppress his or her uniqueness to belong or cling to his or her identity and is sidelined or excluded from the group. In both situations, the potential benefits of diversity are lost.

As a way of fitting in or belonging, many immigrants change their name to an Anglicised version that colleagues find more familiar and easier to pronounce. Changing accents, however, is more difficult. Barriers to inclusion can be reinforced by having an accent. Many second-generation immigrants, having observed the prejudice faced by their parents, and experienced it themselves in the school ground, turn their back on their native culture and language so to escape potential exclusion and feelings of isolation. In the process, Australia becomes a more monolingual society. While perhaps not obvious in the workplace the loss of multilingual capabilities undermines Australia’s competitive advantage in the global arena.

Real inclusion captures the benefits of diversity by making people feel like they belong and, at the same time, understanding, respecting and capitalising on their uniqueness. Uniqueness comes in many forms, some observable, but mostly hidden in the untapped talents of individuals. Large bodies of research make the point that the talents of women are more likely to go unrecognised than those of men. To that loss, we can add the lost potential contributions from all the immigrants who are sidelined or underemployed, like the many foreign taxi drivers with professional degrees from Australian universities, and those with accents which we don’t take the time to understand.

Before BlueScope was spun off, it was part of BHP. I worked for BHP, before it merged with Billiton, as a cadet at the Australian Iron and Steel (AIS) plant in Kwinana. In those days, the AIS plant was full of immigrant workers, but all the supervisory and management ranks were Anglos, and there was very little attention paid to the experiences of those immigrants, many who spoke broken English if at all, but had worked in the large and more sophisticated steel mills of Europe before immigrating to Australia after WWII. Those were the days of tariff protections against imports and government subsidies that no longer exist. Like BlueScope, part of Australia’s global competitiveness lies in inclusion and capturing the benefits of those, like immigrants, who bring different experiences and ideas to work.

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