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A Tribute to Human Achievement Published: Sunday, October 17, 2010 8:00 am By: Ulises Pabón, Chief Operations Officer

This week, the world has experienced a great example of human achievement.  All 33 miners trapped for 69 days in the San Jose mine in Chile were rescued.  They were hoisted to the surface in a steel capsule barely wide enough to fit a man.   Six rescuers descended into the mine to assist in the operation; hence, a total of 39 round trips through the man-made 2,000 feet deep shaft were required to completely vacate the mine.

Proper root-cause analysis will determine whether negligence played a role or not in the circumstances that led to the entrapment.  And as to the exact details of the ordeal, we will have to wait until the miners, slowly but surely start to reveal their respective experience.  What we can say, however, is that the events that unfolded during those 69 days, both above the surface of the earth as well as below, hold an important lesson for all of us to reflect on.

Above the surface, once the Chileans discovered that the men had survived the mine collapse, orchestrating the rescue required both an unyielding determination to save their lives as well as sheer discipline to think and act in accordance with the facts of reality.  Energy that would have been wasted in finger pointing and blaming was channeled into problem solving.

To rescue the miners, resources and knowledge from around the globe were tapped into.  The Chileans brought to the table their expertise in mining.  Two doctors, a psychologists and an engineer from NASA assisted in the planning efforts to maintain the miner’s well being during their prolonged captivity.  Japan’s space agency contributed space underwear for the Chile miners.  Engineers from Austria designed the steel pod that was to descent through the rescue shaft, and an American company built the bit that drilled the 2,000 feet deep hole.

The diversity of players that participated in the solution was not determined by a bureaucratic formula that specified the percentage of contributors required or allowed from each race or nationality.  Neither was a quota set to assure “balanced” contribution from both sexes.  The diversity that was sought was a diversity of knowledge and ideas.  Why this is so ridiculously obvious in this context yet so obscure to the “intellectuals” and “experts” in labor law that demand diversity and “multiculturalism” on the ill-founded basis of race, sex, or nationality escapes my mind.

The technical difficulties that the rescuers faced were overwhelming.  To tackle them successfully they were constantly putting to test the hypotheses they formulated regarding the situation.  When theory and practice did not match, they scrutinized the facts of reality until they discovered the origins of the discrepancy.  By honing in on the details, they slowly and carefully aligned and married theory with practice.  As a result, progress was achieved.

The rigor required in this process is a lesson for us all.  Many times we hold on to our theories – theories about work, about our customers and the markets we operate in, about why things happen – as if they were absolute truths.  We would be better served by following the same rigorous discipline the rescuers followed in assuring a successful recovery.  Next time you think “it’s one thing in theory, it’s another is practice,” check your assumptions.  If theory and reality do not meet, you’re holding on to, at best, an incomplete theory.

Underground, the miners exemplified human achievement under the most difficult circumstances.   The 33 miners endured 17 days in isolation before Chileans discovered the men had survived the mine collapse.  Add to that 52 additional days until the rescue and we face the longest underground mining nightmare in human history.

We already have heard about the leadership role Luis Uszua played in keeping the ultimate goal of survival in the hearts and minds of all 33 men.  Under the circumstances that they faced, every action had to be thought out.  The rationing of food, the work and exercise regime they adopted, the social activities they engaged in, everything they did, had to be judged against the overriding goal of survival. 

The miners delivered to the world a lesson in human spirit, endurance, and unity.  They exemplified what Admiral Jim Stockdale – the highest-ranking United States military officer held prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton” from 1965 to 1973 during the Vietnam War – referred to when he said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Below the ground, as well as above, the events that led to last week’s rescue mission for sure hold countless nuggets of wisdom.  Many more lessons will surface as we better understand the details accompanying this heroic story.

This story reveals the power of humankind.  It shows that we do not have to be omniscient to be able to deal with the facts of reality.  It dismisses those that demand infallibility as the standard for greatness and achievement and it proves wrong those that portray humans as impotent puppets in a preordained world. 

This story is a testament to what can be achieved when our ultimate means of survival – reason – is used correctly and put to the service of the good.  I salute the 33 miners that exemplified what we humans are capable of; and the people that made the rescue possible.  Amen.


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