How 'Teaming' Saved 33 Lives in the Chilean Mining Disaster

Teams composed of people from across expertise areas can create solutions beyond what any one agency can deliver, says Amy Edmondson. Just ask several dozen Chilean workers rescued from a mine collapse.
by Amy C. Edmondson
workers prepare rescue capsule Workers test the NASA-engineered capsule used to lift trapped miners to the surface. Hugo Infante/Government of Chile via Wikimedia Commons

(Editor's Note: Amy Edmondson advises managers to think of teams as a verb, "teaming," which means to proactively build and develop the team even as a project is in process. Teaming, she says, is essential to organizational learning. In her new book Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Complex, Cross-Sector Leadership, Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, illustrates the advantages of teaming using a real-world example: the 2010 mine collapse in Chile that trapped 33 workers some 2,300 feet underground for 69 days. Here's Emondson's account.)

The success of the now legendary mining rescue in Chile in 2010, while widely covered in the news and immortalized in a major Hollywood film, is not widely understood. We offer the rescue as an extraordinary example of extreme teaming, to illustrate the enormous potential of diverse experts coming together to innovate to overcome a nearly impossible challenge. The case illustrates the centrality of diverse perspectives in producing innovation, as well as the importance of leadership in making it happen.

Although mining accidents often present immense hurdles that make rescue unlikely, the situation at Chile’s San Jose copper mine that began on August 5, 2010 was unprecedented on several dimensions. The most daunting of these was the extraordinary depth 700 meters below ground at which the miners were trapped in the aftermath of an explosion that left half a million tons of rock blocking the mine's entrance. The number of miners trapped (33), the hardness of the rock, the instability of the land, and the complete inadequacy of provisions for the trapped men (enough food for two men for 10 days) combined to make the possibility of rescue appear all but impossible to consulted experts. A mining rescue in the United States just a few years earlier, in which nine men were trapped 240 feet below ground, had been considered at the time a remarkable feat.

"At that point, no expert considered rescue of the 33 men a reasonable possibility"

In Chile, early estimates of the possibility of finding anyone alive—put at 10%—diminished sharply two days later when rescue workers narrowly escaped the secondary collapse of a ventilation shaft, taking away the initial best option for extracting the miners. At that point, no expert considered rescue of the 33 men a reasonable possibility. Nonetheless, within 70 days all of them would be alive and reunited with their families.

This outcome was the result of an extraordinary cross-industry teaming effort by hundreds of individuals spanning physical, organizational, cultural, geographic, and professional boundaries. Engineers, geologists, drilling specialists, and more came together from different organizations, sectors, and nations to work on the immensely challenging technical problem of locating, reaching, and extracting the trapped miners. Senior leaders in the Chilean government provided resources to support the on-site efforts.

How senior leadership triggered extreme teaming

In Santiago, Chile’s capital city, President Piæera and Laurence Golborne, the Minister of Mining, met on the morning of August 6, 2010. Piæera then sent Golborne to the mine with a mandate to do whatever possible to bring the miners home, sparing no expense. Golborne and Piæera quickly reached out to their networks of colleagues around the world. As the president put it, “We were humble enough to ask for help” (Robbins, 2007).

Michael Duncan, a deputy chief medical officer with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), reported that the Chilean officials said, “Let’s try to identify who the experts are in the field let’s get some consultants in here that can give us the best information possible.” Duncan brought experience with long space flights to help solve concerns related to the miners’ physical and psychological survival in their small quarters. NASA engineers played a crucial role in the design of the escape capsule that would be used in the final stage of the rescue to extract the miners from the refuge.

The Chilean Carabineros Special Operations Group—an elite Chilean police unit for rescue operations—had arrived a few hours after the first collapse. Yet their initial attempt at rescue had triggered that devastating secondary shaft collapse.

As news of a mine cave-in spread, family members, emergency response teams, rescue workers, and reporters poured into the vicinity. Meanwhile, the Chilean mining community dispatched experts, drilling machines, and bulldozers. At the request of President Pinera, Codelco, the state-owned company, sent a senior mining engineer to lead the effort; Andre Sougarret, known for his engineering prowess, calm composure and ease with people, brought extraordinary technical and leadership competence to the project.

Parallel teaming efforts

Sougarret formed three teams to oversee different aspects of the operation. One searched for the men, poking drill holes deep into the earth in the hopes of hearing sounds to indicate that the men were alive. Another worked on how to keep them alive if found, and a third brainstormed solutions for how to extract them from the refuge. The first team came up with four possible rescue strategies. The most obvious through the ventilation shaft, was quickly rendered impossible. The second strategy, drilling a new mine ramp, also soon proved impossible as the instability of the rock was discovered. The third, tunneling from an adjacent mine a mile away, would have taken 8 months and was thus soon excluded.

The only hope left was the last strategy—drilling a series of holes at various angles to try to locate the refuge.

The extreme depth of the refuge, along with its small size, made the problem of location staggeringly difficult. With the drills’ limited precision, the odds of hitting the refuge with each laborious drilling trial were about one in eighty. Even that was optimistic, because the location of the refuge was imprecisely known. Maps of the tunnels had not been updated in years. Additional technical challenges disallowed drilling straight down from the top of the mine, further exacerbating the drilling accuracy problem.

"No one person, or even one leadership team, or one organization or agency, could have successfully innovated to solve this problem"

Rescuers soon divided into subteams to experiment with different strategies for drilling holes. More often than not, these teams failed to achieve their desired goals in any individual drilling attempt, but they soon learned to celebrate the valuable information each attempt provided, such as revealing features of the rock, to inform future action. For instance, the drillers and geologists discovered that fallen rock had trapped water and sedimentary rocks, increasing drill deviations and further exacerbating the odds of reaching the refuge in time. This was the kind of technical detail that engineers had to quickly incorporate into their plans, which shifted rapidly with each passing day.

One dramatic change to procedure was the discovery and use of frequent, short action-assessment cycles. In normal drilling operations, precision was measured after a hole was completely drilled. Here, in contrast, drillers realized that to hit the refuge, they would have to make measurements every few hours and promptly abandon holes that deviated too much, discouraging as that might be. As they learned more about the search challenge, the odds of success diminished further, with one driller putting it at less than 1%.

In this extreme story, different clusters of experts came up with remarkably complementary pieces of an ultimately viable complex solution. Of course this didn’t happen by accident, but rather was enabled by a particular type of leadership. For example, a Chilean geologist named Felipe Matthews brought a unique technology for measuring drilling with high precision that he had recently developed. Matthews came to the site, and, working with several other strangers, discovered that his measurements were inconsistent with those of other groups; a rapidly improvised set of experiments showed that his equipment was most accurate. Matthews was then put in charge of measuring drilling efforts going forward. In this way, roles emerged and shifted as the teaming went on.

Leaders of different subgroupings met routinely every morning and called for additional quick meetings on an as-needed basis. They developed a protocol for transitioning between day and night drill shifts and for routine maintenance of machinery; “We structured, structured, structured all aspects of execution.” As drill attempts continued to fail, one after another, Sougarret communicated gracefully with the families. Despite these failures, Sougarret and his new colleagues persevered.

A NASA engineer who went to Chile in late August teamed up with engineers in the Chilean navy to design the rescue capsule, after first going back to the United States to pull together a group of 20 NASA engineers. The engineers developed a twelve-page list of requirements, used by the Chilean navy in the final design for the capsule, called the Fenix. The Fenix interior, just large enough to hold a person, was equipped with a microphone, oxygen, and spring-loaded wheels to roll smoothly against the rock walls.

On October 13, 2010, the Fenix started its life-saving runs to bring miners one by one through the 15-minute journey to safety. Over the next two days, miners were hauled up one by one in the 28-inch-wide escape capsule painted with the red, white, and blue of the Chilean flag. After a few minutes to hug relatives, each was taken for medical evaluation. The resulting fervor of the national and even global celebration cannot be underestimated.

How leadership enables extreme teaming

The Chilean rescue presents a superb example of teaming at its best.

Reflecting on the situation, one readily comprehends that a top-down, command-and-control approach would have failed to achieve this stunning outcome. No one person, or even one leadership team, or one organization or agency, could have successfully innovated to solve this problem.

"Unfortunately, extreme teaming involves risk. And risk necessarily brings both success and failure"

It’s also clear that simply encouraging everyone to try anything they wanted could have led to chaos or harm. It required extreme teaming. Facing the unprecedented nature of the disaster, multiple temporary, constantly shifting groups of people working separately on different types of problems, and coordinating across groups, as needed, was the only viable approach. These separate efforts managerial and technical were intensely focused.

This approach necessitated progressive experimentation, a kind of rapid-cycle learning. Diverse technical experts worked collaboratively to design, test, modify, and abandon options, over and over again, until they got it right. They organized quickly to design and experiment with various solutions, and just as quickly admitted when these had failed. They willingly changed course based on feedback some obvious (the collapse of the ventilation shaft), some subtle (being told that their measurements were inaccurate by Matthews intruding mid-process with a new technology).

Perhaps most important, the engineers did not take repeated failure as evidence that a successful rescue was impossible. Unfortunately, extreme teaming involves risk. And risk necessarily brings both success and failure. Fortunately, there is nearly always much to be learned from the failures to inform next steps.

Finally, the support of senior leadership not just the technical leadership on the front lines of innovation was a critical input to the success of this extreme teaming process. Leadership’s commitment to the initiative gave others motivation and the protection they needed to take technical and interpersonal risks that are integral to extreme teaming. This turns out to be important in many business organizations where extreme teaming is employed by diverse technical experts to innovate.

As this example demonstrates, extreme teaming can produce awe-inspiring results. The problem is that its success can be too easily thwarted by communication failures at the boundaries between professions, organizations, and industries. As individuals bring diverse expertise, skills, perspectives, and goals together in unique configurations to accomplish challenging goals, they must overcome subtle and not-so-subtle challenges of communicating across boundaries. Some boundaries are obvious being in different countries with different time zones, for example. Others are subtle, such as when two engineers working for the same company in different facilities unknowingly bring different taken-for-granted assumptions about how to carry out this or that technical procedure to collaboration.

Reprinted by permission of Emerald Publishing Ltd. Excerpted from Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Complex, Cross-Sector Leadership. Copyright 2017 Amy Edmondson. All rights reserved.

Related Reading:

The Importance of Teaming
7 Effective Ways to Lead Teams
Leading a Team to the Top of Mount Everest

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