How refractory-industry leader RHI Magnesita is driving its digital transformation

“Digital go to Market” Transformation Manager Raoul Geijs shares how he is helping RHI Magnesita evolve its data-driven global team through ongoing changes and technological advances.*

Tell us a bit about RHI Magnesita. What’s your core business?

We’re the market leader in the refractory business. We offer the full value chain, helping from the mining of raw materials, through production, to the customization of the bricks and mixes used in the equipment of the world’s steel, cement, non- ferrous metals, and glass producers. We do design, installation, optimization of customers’ heat-management processes, removal, and recycling – and, in recent years, help digitalize the whole process. I’m the Change and Transformation Manager for a program called “Digital go to Market.”

Can you give us an example of how this process is being digitalized?

Well, our customers need to renew the linings – the heat-resistant bricks (what we call refractories) inside a furnace or kiln – regularly. The wear and tear can happen quite quickly, especially for our steel manufacturing clients. Of course, the longer you can use a furnace or kiln with the same lining, the more return you get on your investment, right? But if you wait too long with maintenance or replacement, there’s an enormous risk of unforeseen downtimes, cost-intensive production stops or even health & safety incidents. So the question is: how do I get the max out of my lining without jeopardizing safety?

How can RHI Magnesita and digitalization help there?

To help manage this wear and tear using the power of AI, we developed a refractory management tool called APO, or Automated Process Optimization. It combines all the relevant production data that, using AI technology, helps us predict refractory behavior in each step of our client’s production process. Our industry experts then help our clients to interpret this data, so that they can make fact-based decisions on when to replace their lining while getting the best performance out of the refractories.

What are the biggest challenges RHI Magnesita is facing in bringing these new digital products to market?

Well, RHI Magnesita came together through a lot of different mergers. So there’s a legacy of different systems using different data with the same customers. We need to streamline this and make it easier for customers to understand what products they’ve purchased from us and what they’ve built, etc. So we introduced a CRM (customer relationship management) system to help our customers and also get more insight into product pipelines, market intelligence, and more. All this information is now in one system, which helps the team learn and make better decisions in the future.

Why did you think the Prosci methodology for implementing change could help, and how did you find The People Side of Change?

Well, before I started at this company two and half years ago, I worked 17 years at IKEA. I had to lead multi- cultural teams around the globe through a lot of changes as a people manager as well as a global matrix manager. There we used a four-step model that was simple but effective. I wanted to implement something similar for RHI Magnesita. I found Prosci and I liked their approach, so I started looking for their partners in Europe. That’s how I found The People Side of Change. I liked that their methodology wasn’t flashy; it makes things really measurable. And actionable. You can really see the progress.

How did you get started with The People Side of Change?

First, I went to a training to become a certified change practitioner, and another colleague joined me shortly thereafter. She and I started talking to the rest of our organization, saying this is a great methodology that we need to embrace; we knew the change management approach could help us evolve to deal with the changes that were becoming more constant than ever [due to the mergers, digitalization, etc.]. We worked with The People Side of Change to figure out how we could get our organization’s leadership trained to be change leaders. Soon, most of the leadership around the world was taking part in virtual trainings.

How did the virtual training work for you? Were there any surprises?

The only surprise was that, despite it being a remote training, everything worked surprisingly well! Networking is always an important part of these trainings, and in the virtual setting it of course worked a bit differently, but it also worked quite well. They managed to keep it very interactive, with discussions and quiz elements, etc. There were also enough breaks, time to reflect. We had people participating from all over the world, so they could choose the time slot that worked for them. There were some colleagues who preferred to join a training at 5 in the morning. I wouldn’t have chosen that for myself, but if that’s what fits somebody else’s schedule, then perfect!

How did RHI Magnesita decide who would receive the training?

I mean, in the end we wanted all leaders in our organization to get this training – but training more than 600 people at once is a bit overwhelming. So we decided to pick five strategic projects that we were rolling out in the organization, and selected the first ring of leaders, the steering committee, and the change sponsors of those five projects. So that group got to join the ABC training for active and visible leadership. It’s about building coalitions and improving communication. That’s how it began, with more and more leaders joining other trainings to improve how they lead their teams through change.

Why do you think RHI Magnesita has embraced the Prosci model?

We have a lot of very technical people at our company. The IQ tends to be higher than the EQ – they like to communicate through numbers. The Prosci model was perfect for us because it quantifies everything, translates progress into something our numbers-driven people can see and understand. Want to check how a project is going? With a project health check and risk assessment you can put a number on it. There’s no discussion of “I think, I feel” – you can track progress with charts and graphs. And then our people fully understand. Then they’re in.

How have you dealt with push-back from members of the RHI Magnesita team?

The current “Digital go to Market” program had been going on for about six months before I joined, and they were really focusing on delivering the technical solution. They worked with Microsoft Dynamics to develop this fantastic CRM solution, but they weren’t doing anything on the change-management side. Around 80% of the team was saying that they didn’t understand why they were making these changes. So we worked with executive leadership to improve communication about the project, create more awareness, clarify how the team members benefit. We established key users to be the local change leaders in the different regions. We’re still tracking how this has worked, but early results show us going from only 20% saying they understood why this change was happening to now at least 75% saying that they do. At least 70% saying they wanted to be a part of the change process.

How has the Prosci method become part of the RHI Magnesita change culture?

The first thing we did was to get the leaders on board, so that they could spread the news. And we now do regular checks to figure out when we need change management. It’s becoming a natural part of the project set-up process. Some of the financial partners are also driving this issue, because it’s getting us a better return on investment. That doesn’t have to be about money; it might also be just making better decisions and having happier customers.

What are your plans from here?

We’re now in the process of training all our HR managers – they’re situated in every region, and have a very good view of what’s going on, right? So we are training them to support the change-management process. Act like consultants in the organization. Change management has become part of our teams’ competency development plans.

Who would you recommend The People Side of Change to?

Everyone except our competitors! *laughs* No, seriously, I’m a big fan. I can’t think of any business where it wouldn’t apply, as long as you’re charmed by facts and data. You just need somebody in your organization who drives it. Who goes through the training, and then takes their team on that journey. Don’t do it alone; when you do it together, everybody understands, and you create a common language, which leads to quicker understanding.

*Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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