The Trip of the James Caird

On April 24, 1916, the James Caird left Elephant Island near the South Pole with  a crew of six, leaving the remaining 22 members of the British expedition stranded on the island waiting for the relief that the Caird would hopefully send back, when it reached the Norwegian whaling station on South Georgia Island, some 1300 kilometers away. The boat was skippered by E. H. Shackleton, who had organized and led the expedition that set out to perform the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. Facing a particularly harsh winter, their ship, the Endurance, had been caught in the ice pack that had formed, and as Shackleton put it, “what the ice gets, the ice does not surrender.” In the middle of the Antarctic winter, the boat had indeed been crushed by the ice, leaving the crew stranded on the ice pack, hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

Through wonderful execution allowed by well-honed reflexes and splendid resolve, the crew had succeeded in escaping the melting icepack the following summer and reaching Elephant Island on three lifeboats, with no loss of life. Reaching South Georgia Island before the new winter set in was their only hope of survival. The success of the expedition hinged on the hardware (or infrastructure), and the software, including processes and the people factor.

One of the lifeboats was improvised by the team’s carpenter as best he could with salvaged material: a combination of naval carpentry processes and improvisation upgraded the infrastructure to the level required for the task. Shackleton picked his crew carefully (people processes), making sure he had all the expertise on board that he would need (process mastery). The crew managed several vital processes, including:

  • Navigation – taking a sight with the sextant, dead reckoning, and plotting a course
  • Sailing – “reading” the sea, the ice, and the weather, steering the ship, and giving instructions to set sails, trim sales as required, assess progress, adjust to conditions, foresee what’s coming, and correct course
  • Bailing the water to keep the boat afloat

A flaw in any of these processes would mean certain death for the six men and their mates waiting for rescue on Elephant Island.

Consider navigation error. Because of the distance, a very small error when taking a sight or dead reckoning would mean missing South Georgia Island, sailing endlessly in the South Atlantic, and running short of drinking water within a few days. Calculating the angle of the sun with the horizon using a sextant requires some stability. In a seven-meter lifeboat navigating the most turbulent sea on earth under a cloudy sky, performing this with the required precision is an amazing feat. To reduce variation to a tolerable level when taking a sight, for instance, Captain Frank Worsley developed an approach whereby two fellow crew members bracing him on both sides, like bookends, would stabilize him at the hip. To further reduce measurement error, they took several readings until the mean reading stabilized. Such meticulous focus on reducing variation in critical processes is a distinctive feature of high-performance organizations.

Shackleton also paid careful attention to the people factor, that is, the human qualities and compatibility of character among the crew, as the men had already lived in close proximity and depended on each other for survival for the last 14 months since they had left civilization. He monitored the crew’s situation on board continuously and took appropriate measures, such as having hot drinks prepared for everyone, when he detected a human situation that needed to be dealt with.

They successfully landed the craft on South Georgia Island after a 16-day voyage that stretched the limits of human endurance. As they were on the wrong side of the island, they still had to cross unexplored Antarctic terrain by foot through crevasses, cliffs, glaciers, blinding snowstorms, and treacherous ice. They reached the whaling station totally exhausted on May 21, 1916. “Who the hell are you?” asked the incredulous Norwegian station chief as the three men appeared out of nowhere. “My name is Shackleton” was the bearded man’s simple reply to the at-first incredulous, then highly emotional, reaction of the first witnesses of one the most phenomenal feats of exploration and navigation in history.


While we may be better able nowadays to name the various phenomena involved in high-performance processes, they are nothing new. From Phoenician sailors to Roman engineers and medieval artisans, human history is about getting better at producing results. The path of improvement, obviously, has been anything but linear, with numerous regressions and forgetting, and plenty of superstition meshed with the growing knowledge and know-how. What is different today is the complexity of the world. With globalized markets, instantaneous communication and access to data, phenomenal computing capability, the need for quick response and nimbleness, and strong international competition, cooperation, and coopetition, managing the ingredients of high performance presents new challenges and requires more method. The goal, however, is not to do better than Shackelton’s Endurance crew did in its time. It is in fact to try and do as well as they did, but in a world that is infinitely more complex.

This short case, as well as that of US Airways flight 1549 highligh the importance of having a good game plan that adapts as the game unfolds, good infrastructure, the right people, processes, teamwork, commitment, and rigor. Clearly, the new “hardware” available today makes it possible to deal with complexity. It is only a qualifier, however, since any organization can acquire it. The differentiator lies in the “software”—the way the infrastructure is used and deployed to systematically create more value for the organization’s customers, that is, to become a learning organization.

1 Excerpted from: HARVEY, J., « Complex service delivery processes: Strategy to operations », Second edition, American Society for Quality – Quality Press, Milwaukee: Wisconsin, 428 pages, 2011.