Saturday, October 16, 2010

10 Organizational Lessons from the Ordeal of the Chilean Miners

Winner, 2011
Silver Award
of Distinction
By Cynthia Edwards
October 16, 2010




The saga of the 33 miners in Chile who were imprisoned underground for 70 days claimed the hearts and attention of the whole world. Millions of people were riveted by the scenes of the final phase of the rescue operation, as one by one, the trapped men were successfully restored to freedom and their families.

There are important lessons to be learned from this event and the way it was handled that can be applied in any organization that finds itself in serious trouble.

1. In dark times, live lean.
Is your business crumbling? Has a key project imploded? Does your organization’s future look doomed to failure? Think about this: for 17 days, the 33 Chilean miners had no contact with people on the outside and no way of knowing if they ever would. They lived on two teaspoons of tuna fish every other day. Their world was sunless, airless, and seemingly hopeless. They survived physically through the strength of their determination and strict self-discipline. If times are hard in your business, tighten your belt and run lean until the situation turns around. Postpone new purchases, use up excess inventory, sell off non-essential assets.

2. Keep some perspective.
Whatever you are going through right now, it is not as bad as what the miners endured. Nor is it ever likely to be as bad. Don’t panic, don’t go to pieces, and never give up. Be grateful for every single thing you can do to effect a turnaround. Dig deep inside yourself for reserves of strength and endurance -- which every miner will affirm are there.

3. Establish leadership and a routine.
Whether you are battling the recession, a corporate downturn, a scandal, or any other cave-in equivalent, the way to manage through it is to stay focused on what you can do and maintain discipline in the ranks. The miners organized themselves in teams with leaders and specialists, which created an orderly framework that supported morale in their darkest hours. Give your employees specific tasks that are within their capabilities, communicate expectations, and organize them under respected leaders who will put their shoulders to the same wheel and set a clear example.

4. Keep your spirits up.
One miner testified that he met both God and the Devil in the pit – and God won. Employees too can feel beaten down and depressed when they work in a company or department that is failing. Identify your corporate demons and don’t let them win. Give pep talks. Go back to your mission, vision and values to find your motivation to keep fighting. In what belief or power – higher than yourself and your situation – can you find faith and strength?

5. When you see a ray of light, get galvanized.
17 days after the cave-in that trapped the miners, rescuers finally punched a hole the circumference of a grapefruit into their dank chamber. The miners tapped on the drill bit to signal their presence, and then painted the tip red! That narrow conduit was their salvation, as it brought them food, water, medicine, clothing, sleeping cots, and a host of ingeniously packaged survival gear. In your battle, stay alert to tiny signs that things are turning around: grab hold of them, make the most of them, and – why not? – paint them red!

6. When you can’t do everything yourself, work with outside experts.
The miners could not tunnel out by themselves, and the rescue teams above ground sought and received help from the international community, notably NASA. A drowning business often, if not always, needs outside help, from organizational, financial, advertising, PR, or other appropriate experts. This is not the time to be proud – get the best advice you can and learn from professionals who have been instrumental in triaging other companies like yours.

7. Participate in your own rescue.
As soon as the drilling of the escape route began in earnest, the miners set to work clearing rubble and enabling their own release in every way possible. They even exercised so they could be sure to fit inside the Phoenix, their narrow rescue pod. You too must take ownership of your turnaround, working hard, following expert advice and neutralizing any internal politics that may work against your greater interests.

8. Lead from the top.
Against the urging of his advisers, who feared he would suffer political damage if the very real hazards inherent in the rescue mission resulted in a disaster, Chile’s President Piñera took the visible helm of the rescue effort. He was present throughout the 30-hour dénouement, and hugged and congratulated each miner who emerged from the rocky tomb. Piñera’s moral courage and dedication to doing what was right earned him global respect, and enhanced Chile’s national reputation all the more. Likewise, your senior leadership must be seen to be rallying all their forces on behalf of the company. Cancel the CEO's vacation and any boondoggles for the senior executives until your business is in the clear again.

9. When you are above ground again, enjoy the moment but keep your head.
The miners are now heroes, and understandably have been offered jobs, vacations, money to tell their stories, and all manner of honors and emoluments. Yet they have asked to be left alone, for time to be with their families, to process the ordeal, and readjust to normal life. Eventually your business will turn around, and when it does, you, too, will be experiencing a new normal. By all means, celebrate! Reward those who stood with you in hard times and helped pull the business through. But now you must operate on the principles you have learned, maintaining a steady keel, better than ever prepared to meet the next challenge. Don’t let old, bad habits reassert themselves, or overextend your reach.

10. Hold responsible parties accountable.
The mining disaster in Chile could have been prevented. Safety violations, dangerously overworked mines, and slovenly, callous management all had a part. Wisely, the company that operated the mine in Copiapo was not permitted to take part in the rescue effort, and many government heads rolled as soon as the truth was known. Don’t let the people who contributed to your disaster go unscathed, and never allow leaders who are dishonest, untrustworthy or incompetent to participate in your turnaround. The sooner you show them the door, the sooner you can regain the respect and trust of employees, investors, consumers, suppliers, media and analysts, and ride your own Phoenix to freedom.


(c) Cynthia Edwards. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without permission of the author. Click here to contact by email. 

1 comment:

Luisa Handem Piette said...

Great point and lessons learned from the brave Chilean miners. Thanks, Cynthia.