I first visited Chile about 25 years ago, and have continued to do so from time to time, most recently in September of 2009 when I went to Santiago to join in the celebration of the 80th anniversary of IBM Chile. I will return in a few weeks to participate in the Smarter Cities meeting that IBM is holding in Santiago on November 23. Over the years, I have met, worked closely with, and established personal connections with a fair number of people in the country.
This personal connection added an extra dimension to my interest in the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, although the rescue story has been so compelling that I am not sure anything extra was needed to capture my attention. Along with a large portion of the world, I was transfixed by the rescue of the miners. Would everything work as planned? What if something went horribly wrong as we were all watching on live television? Disaster movies have taught us that just as you become confident and relaxed, things start going haywire. Would that happen here?
Thankfully, everything went smoothly. There was indeed a lot of drama, but it was all provided by the emotional reunion of the miners with their families as each reached the surface, as well as by the warm welcome they each received from everyone present, including Chilean president Sebastian Piñera and mining minister Laurence Golborne. We held our breaths from the time the first miner, Florencio Ávalos started his ascent right before midnight (Chile time) on October 12, to the time the last one reached the surface less that 24 hours later, Luis Alberto Urzúa, their shift supervisor and overall leader.
A lot of the attention is now likely to focus on how the miners and their families deal with their new celebrity status and potential financial rewards. Everyone agrees that while their fame may be lucrative, it will also be stressful. There will be lots of opportunities for public appearances, press and TV interviews, and possible book and film deals. Some will undoubtedly find their new fame too stressful and will yearn for their simpler lives as miners.
Let me summarize my thoughts about these questions along three key dimensions: engineering, management and collaboration.
Without a doubt, the rescue mission was a major engineering feat, all the more remarkable because it was accomplished in crisis mode, in a very short time and with the whole world watching. The miners were trapped nearly 700 meters or 2,300 feet below ground, and about 5 kilometers from the mine entrance. Boreholes had to be drilled through sheer rock. They had to be wide enough in diameter, - about 66 cm (26 inches) - to accommodate the pod or capsule used to lift each miner to the surface.
No one had ever attempted a rescue of this magnitude before, and thus no one had any idea what would or would not work. This was truly an R&D project, with everyone learning, improvising and innovating as they went along. Three different boreholes were drilled in parallel, each using different kinds of drilling equipment, because it was not clear which would work best. Fortunately, one of the three boreholes reached the miners on October 9, several weeks ahead of the original estimates, setting the stage for the successful rescue a few days later.
In addition to the massive engineering challenges of drilling the boreholes and lifting the miners to the surface, there was the equally massive challenge of ensuring that the miners were kept in good physical and mental health. The mine collapsed on August 5, and to everyone’s surprise, the miners were found alive 17 days later. It was estimated that it would take several months to drill the boreholes and rescue them, perhaps sometime around Christmas. The physical and mental health efforts put in place to support them were truly impressive. The Wikipedia entry provides a good summary:
“Psychologists and doctors worked with the rescue effort to ensure the miners kept busy and mentally focused. Fluorescent lights with timers were sent down to keep the men on a normal schedule by imitating day and night . . . Doctors determined that Yonni Barrios was the most qualified of the miners to undertake medical tasks and to communicate on health issues due to his previous medical training. He made daily rounds, administering diagnostic tests, taking samples and updating patient charts, and participated in daily conference calls with the medical team above. He became so busy that he recruited Daniel Herrera to assist with the record-keeping. Barrios vaccinated the group against tetanus, diphteria, flu and pneumonia.”
Nothing was left to chance. The overall rescue was not only an impressive engineering and scientific achievements, but an equally impressive organization and management achievement. President Piñera and mining minister Golborne provided the necessary executive leadership, without which the project would not have succeeded in the record time it did. But, this was not a case of a top down hierarchic organization where Piñera and Golborne called all the shots and made all the decisions. You could not possible run a research project, which the rescue essentially was, in such a hierarchic fashion.
The rescue project represents one of the most innovative case studies of distributed leadership I have seen, one that I am sure will be studied for years to come. Having assembled a world class team of experts in a variety of fields, - engineers, geo-scientists, physicians, psychologists, - it is evident that they each understood their respective responsibilities and were empowered to make their own decisions. They all worked together as a finely tuned team. The objective was clear - keep the miners healthy while trapped, and bring them up safely as quickly as possible. Everything else could wait, including assigning blame for the accident.
Perhaps most impressive in the overall organization was the actual role of the miners in their own well being and rescue. As described in the Wikipedia entry:
“The miners affirmed their ability to participate in rescue efforts, saying 'There are a large number of professionals who are going to help in the rescue efforts from down here.' Psychologists believed that the miners should have a role in their own destiny as it was important to maintain motivation and optimism. They divided themselves into three eight hour shifts with each shift responsible for handling the palomas [doves or carrier pigeon, the nickname given to the plastic capsules used to send food and other materials to the miners through narrow communication boreholes], environmental safety, preventing further rock falls, communications and sanitation-related tasks. Luis Urzúa became the overall leader and the oldest miner, Mario Gómez, was chosen to provide spiritual guidance. Mental health experts supported the hierarchical structure to preserve order and routine within the group believing it to be crucial to their mental health.”
The rescue project can be also studied as an exercise in collaborative innovation at multiple levels. First, you had the collaboration between government, business and academia, each bringing to the project their own particular skills and responsibilities. Next, you had collaboration across a variety of disciplines, from engineers to psychologists.
This was a project of a truly international scope. While Chilean leaders where clearly in charge of the overall operation, they understood that their priority was the successful rescue, regardless of where the innovations, ideas and tools that made the rescue possible came from. Anyone who could help was welcome into the team.
The drill that finally reached the miners came from Pennsylvania, and a team of American experts in this particular drill worked side by side with experts from a Chilean drilling company. The drill used in one of the other groups came from Canada. Submarine experts from the Chilean Navy worked closely with experts from NASA to share their experiences in how to keep the 33 miners in sound body and mind while trapped in such remote, small quarters.
But, above all, what makes the rescue of the Chilean miners such an uplifting, compelling story is that it reminds us of what can be accomplished when highly talented people come together to work for a common objective. Just about anything becomes possible, whether it is tackling major societal problems or dealing with unpredictable, cataclysmic events. Everyone has an important role to play, from the president and other top leaders to the miners themselves. Given our increasingly complex and challenging world, these will prove to be invaluable lessons for the future.