The old joke goes “How do you eat an elephant?” Of course, the answer is “One bite at a time”. But what does an organization do when a catastrophic event is so enormous, such a large elephant, that the damage leaves everyone asking “OMG – What are we going to do?”. This is the question that the men and women of the Bingham Canyon Mine asked after realizing the scope of damage from the Manefay landslide in 2013. A young engineer answered that question with a simple diagram that outlined “how to eat the elephant.”
On April 10th of 2013 the Bingham Canyon Mine experienced the largest highwall failure in mining history when 144 million tons of material exploded out of the highwall and rushed to the bottom of the enormous open pit. The good news was that because of the monitoring and planning before the failure there were no fatalities or injuries – but the damage and impact to the mine was devastating. The landslide destroyed everything in its path, including giant mining shovels and trucks, as well as the only haul road into the pit. It only took 90 seconds for the huge mass to travel a mile and half leaving 600 feet of debris in the bottom of the pit and thousands of feet of dangerous unstable scarps (remnants of the pit wall after the landslide) that could fail.
The mine now had an “elephant” sized problem and many believed it was the end for the 107-year-old Bingham Canyon Mine. However, the goal was to return to full production as safely and as soon as possible and my job was to manage the planning for that work. From studying the photos and examining from the outer rim of the mine at a variety of angles, it was obvious that we had an enormous “elephant to eat”. But it wasn’t until traveling down to the new bottom of the pit and seeing the slide from the toe of the debris field while looking up to the top of the scarp, that the scale of the elephant really struck home (photo below). Getting out of the truck and seeing the almost unbelievable damage towering thousands of feet above, the first thought that came was “Oh my God – What are we going to do?”
Photo – The Manefay “elephant” was not only massive, but it was frightening and dangerous yet strangely beautiful with its array of colors.
It was easy to see the size of the elephant, but not so simple to picture out how to eat the elephant – after all, no one had ever eaten an elephant this large before. However, it was obvious that if we did not work together and have a strategic plan on how to eat this elephant, the work would be more dangerous and the job would take much longer to complete. But the question was how to make sure everyone could see how to eat the elephant instead of just seeing the size of the elephant?
The answer to this communication and planning problem came from a young engineer, Jon Warner. Jon is not only a talented engineer, he is also a gifted artist. His solution was simple – color code the various aspects of the recovery work on a digital graphic of the mine. The work could now be organized into logical and manageable bites of the elephant. The following figure shows one of the first versions of Jon’s work.
With this one figure, everyone understood the work (bites) and the order in which to safely take those bites. The figure also showed the number of tons of material that would have to be moved and an estimate of the equipment that would be needed.
The first bite was to stabilize the Head Scarp (1) because it was on the weak Manefay bed and therefore unstable. If it failed it could put everyone working below it in danger. From there the figure showed next bites of work that would then have taken was to stabilize the other scarps (2 and 3), clean the safety benches (4 and 5) as well as clear and rebuild the haul road going into the pit (6,7,8 and 9). After that work the tasks would be to uncover the ore and build a new access to remove the ore so the downstream operations would not run of feed (10, and 11). The last step was to finish taking the debris out of the pit (12) – which could be completed over a much longer period.
No longer was the Manefay one giant and overwhelming elephant to eat – it could now be eaten in smaller, manageable bites. This one figure made an important difference in how people understood the tasks at hand, but more importantly, could believe that they would be successful in returning the mine to full production. In my opinion, this figure was one of the keys to the Bingham Canyon Mine completing the critical remediation by November 13th of 2013 – much earlier than most of us thought possible.
Jon’s colored figure may seem simple and intuitive, which is often the case with innovative and elegant solutions. In our world where problems are typically solved with sophisticated programs and models, we tend to lose sight of simple solutions of “how to eat an elephant”. Indeed, simple figures can effectively communicate important information and help an entire organization meet its goals and objects.
Almost all of us have had large elephants that needed to be eaten. I hope that you have found this article helpful in thinking about how to turn the elephant into manageable bites. If it was useful please like or share the article. More importantly send me a comment if you have questions or want to share similar experiences. I would appreciate learning from what you have done or seen.