A Race to the South Pole

In late 1911, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was determined to be the first explorer to reach the South Pole. However, he wasn’t the only one.

Robert Scott, a British naval officer, was also preparing his team to reach the South Pole. While Scott’s team planned to gather scientific information along the way, the distinct difference between these two teams was that Amundsen had a singular goal – to be the first team to reach the South Pole. They would simply make the journey, be the first team to plant the flag and safely return home.

 Amundsen not only emerged the victor, but he and his exploration party returned to tell the story and claim the distinction of being the first to reach the geographic South Pole. Scott and five of his team, however, perished in the effort.

The fate of the two expeditions has been widely discussed [1], but most research settles on Amundsen’s decision to use only dogs to transport his team as a key to his victory, while Scott’s plan conceived of a multi-tiered transport system of horses, dogs and motorized sledges, the last being a new technology at the time. The complexity of Scott’s methods in addition to his team gathering scientific information and taking photographs, deterred them from reaching their destination.

Amundsen’s “keep it simple,” utilitarian approach, in contrast with Scott’s, prevailed, allowing Amundsen’s team to reach the South Pole first, arriving a full month before Scott’s team. Amundsen’s team returned safely to retell their tale of victory while Scott’s team succumbed to the elements, most noting their under-preparation for food and supplies, unproven motorized sledges, and the elements being the cause of his team’s demise [2]. It wasn’t one mistake, it was the cumulation of many mistakes that changed their fate.

As the fate of these rival expeditions illustrate, building a zero-harm environment shouldn’t begin with trying to manage too many outcomes. It’s best to start small, do a few things really well through meticulous planning, and then move on to the next challenge.

While both teams prepared, Scott’s team didn’t plan for those unpredictable factors, leaving little room for error, which led to their demise. In their case, lack of food, powerful blizzards and the delays caused by gathering their research along the way.

 In healthcare, it’s often the same story. Two health systems trying different approaches, hoping to reach the same destination of safe patient care. Like Amundsen, it’s important to do less and obsess about those things in hopes to master them.

When faced with uncertainty – learning experiences, obsessive planning and preparation and a willingness to alter course when faced with unforeseen circumstances are the characteristics of a successful high-reliability organization [3].

Don’t be like “Team Scott” and try to tackle everything at once. Instead, focus on your highest risk areas and low hanging fruit. Measure and manage a small set of improvement processes to establish best practices that can be cascaded across the organization. Obsess about data, lessons learned, and outcomes. Celebrate successes and drive accountability to remain focused. As individuals and teams become empowered, help them learn from “Team Amundsen” to methodically and meticulously achieve great things in healthcare.

 

Resources

[resource 1]  https://medium.com/the-mission/the-great-race-to-the-south-pole-a-deadly-lesson-on-110-preparation-8846b3f2388e

[resource 2]  https://hbr.org/2011/12/the-leadership-lessons-of-the

[resource 3]  https://psnet.ahrq.gov/primers/primer/31/High-Reliability

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