The takeaways from the keynote session at this year’s Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME) annual meeting, which was held during February in Phoenix, were clear and informative. Outgoing SME President Steve Gardner was the emcee, and prior to the keynote, he introduced Phillips S. Baker Jr., CEO, Hecla Mining. Celebrating its 125th anniversary, Hecla sponsored the session.
Baker kicked off his presentation with an impressive video that can be viewed here. Hecla Mining Co. was founded in 1891 to acquire and trade mining claims in northern Idaho’s newly discovered Silver Valley, a district that has so far produced more than 1.2 billion oz of silver. Today, Hecla is the largest primary silver producer in the U.S. “This milestone causes us to consider our priorities and the path of our longevity,” Baker said. “Our first priority is safety. We are constantly looking for ways to engineer risk out of the equation.”
What’s the secret to longevity? “You have to start with great, long-lived, low-cost assets, and Hecla has them,” Baker said. “The company’s Greens Creek mine, as an example, is in its 28th year of having a 10-year mine life and it still has 100 million oz of reserves that are growing. Every long-lived company has one company-making asset like Greens Creek.”
Baker is an important man in the silver mining and processing industries, but before an audience of engineers, he couldn’t compete with an astronaut. In a nutshell, Air Force Colonel and astronaut Mike Mullane talked about teamwork. Col. Mullane completed three space missions and logged 356 hours in space aboard the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis. Much of his presentation was tied to the Challenger space shuttle disaster, which occurred 30 years ago, and what went wrong and what we could learn from it. He walked the crowd through the rigors of launch day, getting suited up and readying for a trip to space. Knowing that you are riding on 4 million lb of propellant, Mullane asked rhetorically: What type of team would you want supporting you? The answer obviously is the best team NASA can assemble.
He talked at length about guarding against the normalization of deviance, a long-term phenomenon where teams (or individuals) repeatedly accept a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the norm. He also discussed the essence of responsibility and accountability as a leader and an individual, pressing the crowd to maintain themselves as courageous self-leaders.
“Workers rationalize short cuts in best practices when they are under pressure,” Mullane said. “When nothing bad happens, it gives them a false positive feedback. One starts to believe the risk of taking the shortcut is manageable. Ultimately these decisions will lead to ugly, predictable surprises.” Sound familiar?
The shuttle program was sold to Congress and the American people as a game-changer for space exploration, Mullane explained; it was going to dramatically reduce the cost of exploring space. A fleet of four orbiters were going to sustain a flight rate of 26 missions per year. To succeed, they had to fly often. The most missions launched in a one-year period was 11. Under tremendous schedule and budget pressures and over multiple launches, the NASA team accepted a lower standard of performance for the solid rocket booster O-rings until that lower standard became the norm. Disaster resulted.
Much of this is documented in his book, The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. Mullane encouraged the crowd to hang on to their sense of vulnerability; and to set challenging, yet attainable goals. If they are set too high, the team will either give up or find shortcuts to meet the goals.
Steve Fiscor, E&MJ Editor-in-Chief,