Breaking Fixedness: Saving the Boys of the Thai Soccer Team Trapped in a Cave

Making Big, Bold Assertions to Drive Design Strategy
June 25, 2018

Breaking Fixedness: Saving the Boys of the Thai Soccer Team Trapped in a Cave

News of a boys soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand brought back memories of the Chilean miners trapped 2,300 feet underground in August 2010. It took 66 days before the last miner was brought. The young boys have much less time given the threat of monsoon rains.

The solution in Chile was to “break fixedness” to see new rescue possibilities. That may be what’s needed here. Billionaire Elon Musk and his teams are looking at ways to break fixedness by constructing an inflatable tube to carry them out or perhaps a tiny capsule that can fit through the narrow caves.

It’s a brilliant idea because it goes against the traditional view of how they should be rescued. Consider what happened in Chile (from Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results):

All traditional methods of rescue failed. With hope that anyone would survive the ordeal diminishing hourly, the international rescue team swiftly implemented “Plan B.” An ingenious escape tube that carried the men out of danger one at a time saved all the miners from what otherwise would have been a slow and painful death. After 66 days, the last miner emerged from the dark hole to cheers and celebrations heard around the globe.

What most people don’t know is that the solution was more than half a century old. First conceived of in the mid-1950s, the Subtraction-inspired solution has radically changed rescue strategies throughout a broad range of industries and scenarios.

In May, 1955, a mineshaft collapsed in the Dahlbusch area in the German city of Gelsenkirchen. Three miners were trapped underground. Although rescuers managed to convey food and water through a small bore hole, they couldn’t get the men out. The collapse had effectively sealed all existing mine shafts. The shafts had been “subtracted.”

A 34-year-old engineer working at the site, Eberhard Au, took a different approach to solving the problem. As other rescuers focused on attempting to reopen a mine shaft, Au quietly designed a small cigar-shaped capsule out of ordinary sheet metal. Only 15.2 inches wide, the capsule was small enough to fit into the bore hole the rescuers were using to send food and water down to the minors. Despite its tiny size, the capsule was large enough for a single miner to squeeze into. Rescuers successfully retrieved each of the three German mine workers this way.

“What they did at Dahlbusch was a master stroke of genius,” says Jeff Sabo, a 40-year veteran of mine rescue operations who teaches mine rescue at the Mine Safety Training Center in Cadiz, Ohio. “Mine rescue has been around for hundreds of years. But the idea of using a small bore hole to rescue one miner at a time was very innovative.”

This solution was obvious in hindsight. But rescuers were blinded by functional and structural fixedness. Humans have been mining the earth for metals and precious stones for more than 40,000 years. Over time, the process has evolved considerable as successive generations come up with new and safer engineering and construction methodologies. The downside of this long history of innovation is that mining professionals believe they truly understand “best practices” for operational efficiency and safety. The sheer weight of experience—usually considered an advantage in a profession—had limited their ability to think creatively.

A mine is an intricate interconnected network of vertical, slopped, and horizontal shafts. Miners are proud of the careful planning, rigorous engineering, and strong construction skills required to build a shaft. Each miner possesses an indelible mental map of the entire mine network in his mind. He wouldn’t’ be able to do his job without this mental map. Yet this mental map creates a significant amount of structural fixedness. Whenever a disaster occurs, the first step in mine rescue protocol dictates using the existing infrastructure of mine shafts to release all miners at once. So Plan A involves attempting to unblock the shaft that leads to the victims’ location. This makes perfect sense: Mine engineers, managers, and safety professionals know the exact location of each mine shaft, the structural integrity of each shaft, and how each one connects to all the others. They spent years building these shafts, and many more years working in them. Using existing shafts as rescue conduits is the quickest and safest way to get their colleagues back to the surface of the earth. But sometimes Plan A fails.

In Germany, in 1955, Plan A proved untenable. So the rescue team had to “put every option on the table,” according to Rob McGee from the United States Mine Rescue Association. This pushed Au into thinking the unthinkable. Breaking the temptation to view the world through the lens of structural fixedness, he stopped to consider potential replacements within the Closed World. By subtracting and then replacing the main mine shaft with an air hole, he saved not just those three German lives, but many future lives, as his technique was adopted as the gold standard for Plan B by the mining industry. Indeed Au’s capsule rescued trapped individual miners in back-to-back disasters in 1956 and 1957. In 1963, the capsule saved 11 miners trapped at a depth of 190 feet for two weeks in an iron ore mine. Today, the United States Mine Safety and Health Association keeps a capsule like Au’s original one primed and ready to go anywhere in the world it’s needed.

The “Phoenix” capsule used to rescue of 33 miners in Chile was an enhanced version of Au’s original design. Engineers from the Chilean navy built three that were slightly larger than Au’s original–eight feet long and 21 inches in diameter—and also equipped with microphones, speakers, and oxygen supplies. Otherwise, Au’s basic idea has proven amazingly robust.

Eberhard Au died in 1996 at the age of 75. He never applied for a patent for his capsule. “The main thing is, the lads get out of there,” he reportedly said.

I can hear Elon Musk saying the same thing about these boys. Thank you, Elon!