Boliden Kokkola encourages innovation – additional boost from cooperation with universities
At Boliden, innovation is part of day-to-day work, from small, everyday ideas to the development of production processes. Our active cooperation with the University of Vaasa and Kokkola University Consortium Chydenius helps foster an atmosphere that encourages innovation.
Innovation comes from ideas, thoughts and suggestions that, at best, result in new kinds of solutions and ways of working. Boliden Kokkola is a world-class zinc plant that continuously develops its operations. At Boliden, innovation is part of the daily work of each of our 560 employees.
"Innovations introduced in a company do not always need to be revolutionary. They can be minor things that make daily work easier or improve safety, for example. On the other hand, innovations can lead to major technological improvements in production processes," says Jorma Harju, Department Manager of the roaster and acid plant at Boliden Kokkola.
Innovation is also about learning and thus a central part of the everyday activities of a learning organisation.
"Of course, innovations are used to make things smarter, more efficient, cheaper or even more fun, but above all, we can learn something new from innovation," says Maria Pajuoja, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Vaasa.
Even in a production plant environment, innovation is not limited to the development of processes and technical improvements, but the focus is also on the wellbeing of the work community.
Innovations can contribute to improvements in the social environment of the work community.
"Improving the atmosphere at the workplace can lead to increased work motivation and efficiency and reduced employee turnover and sickness absences," says Tomi J. Kallio, Professor of Business Development at Kokkola University Consortium Chydenius of the University of Vaasa.
Boliden Kokkola's active cooperation with the University of Vaasa and University Consortium Chydenius enables the continuous development of the company's operating methods and models.
In a safe atmosphere, people dare to challenge old habits
Central to the creation of innovations is a good and psychologically safe work culture, and Boliden makes significant investments in building and strengthening this aspect of the workplace.
"We want a work community where people have the courage to engage in discussion where they can present and justify their views. We let employees know that it is safe to disagree and challenge others in a constructive spirit. We have strengthened both leadership and coworker skills in order to foster helpful and respectful dialogue," says Annele Heikkilä, Change Manager at Boliden Kokkola.
"It is important that people can share ideas and suggestions about their work without fear of being shot down. I've also seen organisations with the mindset that new employees full of ideas are discouraged until they eventually learn to keep their mouth shut. This kind of atmosphere kills creativity," says Kallio.
An individual employee's innovation is often driven by a desire to make their own work and that of coworkers easier by finding new solutions to work methods.
"For an individual, the spark for innovation often stems from the desire to influence development and encourage a positive bustle around their team's work. Of course, suggestions and their benefits must be justified from the employer's point of view," Pajuoja stresses.
Similarly, large development projects that look for solutions for more efficient use of raw materials in production processes and metal recovery, for example, seek benefits at the level of the entire company to improve the production efficiency.
Succeeding through learning
In his work at Boliden, Jorma Harju has been part of organisational changes that have helped involve employees in operations and encourage them to present their ideas and thoughts. Alongside inclusion, participation has also been needed.
"At first, things were clumsy as we operate in a very traditional industry. It took time for people to have the courage to step forward and present their ideas. But when we were able to achieve small successes and positive experiences about our opportunities to make a difference, we really got the ball rolling," Harju says.
People want to be heard in matters that concern their work community and day-to-day tasks. Giving and receiving feedback is an essential part of this. And if ideas are not taken forward, this also needs to be communicated to people.
Brainstorming around the coffee machine
In a short period of time, the pandemic reshaped the operating conditions of many companies, forcing rapid changes in practices and organisation.
"The pandemic is a good example of how radical innovations can come about, when operations are suddenly subject to very strict restrictions imposed from the outside. Companies identified and put into practice methods and tools based on remote work in just two months. Without the pandemic, such a radical change would hardly have happened even in 20 years," Kallio says.
Working from home has brought challenges to day-to-day innovation at the workplace, as casual encounters are replaced by a stream of Teams meetings. Networks shrink in size when working remotely.
"Scientific studies also show that water coolers, coffee machines and photocopiers at workplaces are ideal places for innovation, as people from different departments bump into each other and exchange news and ideas," Kallio says.
The same applies to various personnel meetings that are followed by idle time for chatting with unfamiliar faces. Correspondingly, remote meetings are easily reduced to only dealing with the matter at hand.
"New ideas arise when there is room to think and time to explore beyond one's own circle at work. This creates sparks that can lead to something bigger over time," Harju says.
Boundary conditions are not set in stone
In addition to a safe atmosphere, employee wellbeing and satisfaction are prerequisites for ideas to begin flowing in the midst of everyday work.
"Innovation is not directed from above. Creating an atmosphere conducive to innovation requires supervisors to provide space and opportunities, as well as place trust and faith in their team," Heikkilä says.
In many cases, there are many boundary conditions for reforms and suitable solutions, some of which may be very strict.
"Boundary conditions are needed, but it must also be possible to question them. Sometimes, it's better to take a step back and look at whether something could be done from scratch in an entirely new way. While this is not part of daily routines, it would be helpful to occasionally have the opportunity to engage in this kind of thinking," Pajuoja says.