Project Management Lessons from the Chile Mine Rescue

by Karen A. Brown and Nancy Lea Hyer

On October 13, 2010, 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped 700 meters below the earth’s surface were rescued and reunited with their loved ones after 69 days underground. The successful and emotional rescue effort continues to receive considerable attention. Several observers have reflected on teamwork and leadership lessons. To expand the discussion, we examine the rescue in the context of project management, considering what went well and what didn’t go so well. Here are the top 10 lessons from our perspective:

1. Reconnaissance first. Define the problem before you act.

2. Keep project goals out in front. It’s easy to lose sight of them. Ask “why are we here?”

3. Communicate across parallel activities. Concurrent work can compress a schedule, but it requires coordination.

4. Learn from others. Other projects have had similar characteristics. Don’t think you are alone.

5. Experiment in real time. Run tests in parallel rather than in sequence.

6. Use downtime effectively. Neither sit idle nor give in to scope creep.

7. Keep key stakeholders in the loop. In the absence of information, stakeholders will spread rumors much more damaging than any negative information you might be reluctant to report.

8. Define what “end of project” means. “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.” (Yogi Berra)

9. Celebrate milestones. A little fanfare and recognition are good for everyone.

10. Learn broadly from the project. Don’t forget what caused the project to be necessary in the first place.

Here they are, with details related to the rescue project:

1. Reconnaissance first. The rescue team and leaders continuously engaged in situational assessment before jumping to action. Initially, they used maps (unfortunately not up-to-date) of the 100-year-old mine, surveyed the entrance (blocked), looked for alternative entry routes, and engaged in geological assessments before beginning bore-hole drilling that kicked off the actual search process. Later, when the miners were found, the first action was to send down a telephone line, which would enable information gathering prior to action. Too often, well-meaning project teams leap to action before they understand the problem to be solved and the right steps to take.

2. Keep project goals out in front. The goal of this project was to bring 33 miners to the earth’s surface safely and reunite them with their loved ones. (Likely there were some PR goals for the mining company as well.) The trapped miners expressed dire need for cigarettes, but the initial response was to deny access for health and safety reasons. However, project leaders later reversed the decision, and, as a physical trainer tending to building the miners’ strength and endurance observed (paraphrased here): “This is a mine rescue effort, not a smoking cessation program.”

3. Communicate across parallel activities. This was a time-compressed project in which many activities had to be performed in parallel; drilling, capsule design, preparation for the rescue, communication with stakeholders and media, managing the health and well-being of the trapped miners, and preparing for post-rescue all took place concurrently. Parallel or concurrent scheduling represents a valid means for reducing a project’s duration, but carries coordination risks. In the mine rescue, communication across parallel tasks was made easier by co-location, a luxury not enjoyed by all project teams. Nearly everyone involved was onsite, and physical progress was easily communicated, and often visually. Awareness of what was happening overall allowed teams on concurrent tasks to adapt plans and designs as realities changed.

4. Learn from others. Too often, project teams begin work on what seems like a new problem without investigating whether or not there is any history that might guide how the project is planned and delivered. Leaders in the mine rescue project saw quite quickly that this project had similarities to a mine rescue project that occurred eight years earlier in Pennsylvania. Additionally, the team recognized that being trapped below the earth’s surface created the kind of isolation experienced by astronauts, so they endeavored to learn what they could from NASA specialists.

5. Experiment in real time. When risks are high probability, with huge potential impact, effective project teams know they must run several contrasting approaches in parallel to increase the likelihood of success. (This is different from concurrency in disparate tasks that are all required and to complete the project.) There were at least two examples in the mine rescue. First, multiple bore-holes were drilled simultaneously when they were first trying to locate the miners. They didn’t drill one test hole at a time, but “crashed” the schedule by using multiple pieces of equipment. Second, once the miners were located, they had drilling Plans A, B, and C running simultaneously, using different types of equipment. Backup was essential, and a little high-profile competition didn’t hurt.

6. Use downtime effectively. In the case of the mine rescue, leaders and team members realized they could use two days of down time in drilling to assess the stability of the walls of the rescue hole and make decisions about whether or not reinforcement would be necessary. They didn’t just sit around waiting for repairs to be completed, as often happens in other projects. In order to best use downtime, the team must have thought about what tasks planned for later might fit into any time that becomes available. In the absence of advance planning, eager team members can be tempted to fill downtime with unnecessary scope creep.

7. Keep key stakeholders in the loop. In the absence of information, stakeholders will spread rumors much more damaging than any negative information you might be reluctant to report. Mine rescue leaders learned about this one the hard way. They initially withheld information from the miners and their families, and also censored and altered communication between the two stakeholder groups. Enraged miners, friends, and family members made it clear this was unacceptable. Although project leaders thought they were doing the right thing, they actually created a sense of distrust that probably never disappeared entirely. To their credit, mine rescue leaders quickly discovered the error in their ways and opened things up for free-flowing communication. No more message censoring. There were immediate announcements of changes, disappointments, and triumphs as they emerged. A huge TV screen in Campa Esperanza allowed all of the ‘up top’ stakeholders to see news coverage, real-time video in the mine, events at the drill and rescue site on the surface, and announcements from project leaders, including President Sebastián Piñera, who demonstrated tremendous media savvy during the rescue operation.

8. Celebrate milestones. This was a strong, positive feature of the project. Each major event was celebrated with great fanfare and heartfelt joy: finding the miners, connecting with the miners, the first video links, the birth of a miner’s baby, completion of the rescue canal, and rescue of the miners. It helped that family members located at Campa Esperanza created much of the celebration themselves. It doesn’t appear they felt they had to wait for officials to authorize celebration, a reminder that milestone recognition events need not come officially from the top.

9. Define what “end of project” means. To those involved in the rescue effort, the project would end when the miners were safety rescued, medically stable, and in the arms of loved ones. While underground, the miners might have envisioned project boundaries in much the same way. However, it is clear from post-project analyses such as the one written by Jonathan Franklin (33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners) that no one thought far enough into the future. Once the glory of the rescue ended, so did rescuers’ interest in the project. But the real human story comes from what happened to the miners after they attempted to return to their lives. According to a February 2011 60-Minutes program built on Franklin’s work, 32 of the 33 miners were suffering from serious depression and social problems. Several had experienced thoughts of suicide. They were no longer miners, a role that defined them as individuals. This project is not over yet, but few who have the power to do anything about it seem to care.

10. Learn broadly from the project. Don’t forget what caused the project to be necessary in the first place. This seems to have been a missing link in the project. From our armchair perspective, the glory of the rescue has overshadowed very serious lapses in corporate responsibility. For example, there was enough food in the shelter for “a couple of picnics.” The mine was over 100 years old and had a history of serious safety problems. Rescuing the miners successfully probably increased the organization’s capacity to undertake successful rescue effort in the future. However, what really matters in this case is being able to AVOID the need to rescue. Crisis response projects should spawn projects directed at avoiding, where possible, similar crises in the future.