Crisis Management: The Dishonesty Behind Japan’s Tsunami Aftermath: Crisis prevention
American companies handling hazardous chemicals scrambled in the late 1990’s to meet a new EPA requirement to declare worst-case environmental disasters. They had to specify the precise geographical area involved, the number of people affected, how the crisis would be dealt with, crisis communications, etc. These Risk Management Plans are still required.
I don’t know whether something like a vetted RMP would have prevented the ongoing horror show at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but this disaster that has rained detectable (but not-dangerous) radiation as far as Boston is now a poster child for crisis fumbling even as workers risk their lives trying to contain the danger weeks after the March 11 earthquake. Let’s count the reasons why:
Pre-quake dishonesty. In 2002 five top executives of plant-owner Tokyo Electric Power Company resigned after falsifying safety records. In 2004 a steam leak at a nuclear plant burned four workers to death and injured seven others. Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency said 33 required inspections were not made at the Daiichi plant this past February.
Pre-quake denial. As hard as it is to fathom that any company could have prepared for a 9.0 temblor and 30 foot tsunami, Tepco was warned in 2002 that a tsunami from a lesser quake could top its 13 foot protective wall by five feet. Nothing substantial was done, and the tsunami, as we know, knocked out the reactor cooling system and backup generators and started the cascading catastrophe.
Post-quake hesitation. The New York Times reported that company officials apparently dragged their feet in the early hours either due to complacency or fear of damaging the plant with emergency cooling measures. ABC News reported U.S. officials were alarmed at the slow response in Japan and afraid “that if they do not get control of the plants within the next 24 to 48 hours they could have a situation that will be ‘deadly for decades.’” Tokyo’s governor said, “Their response has been no good at all.”
Poor communication. Outside experts repeatedly said the company and government officials understated the dangers from the beginning and thus compelled others to judge the situation from afar. A USC Japanese engineering professor said, “”Information-sharing has not been in the culture of Tepco or the Japanese government.”
The power company frequently deflected questions by saying it was investigating and apologized at least twice, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, prompted this exchange between the company and a journalist who asked, “Are you apologizing because things have crossed a critical line?” Tepco’s spokesman said, “We simply realized that our apology was not enough and wanted to express the company’s deep regrets.” To which the frustrated journalist responded, “I’m not asking about how you feel.”
As the government eventually got up to speed on relaying information it still tripped over the power company two weeks after the earthquake. The government spokesman said, “We strongly urge Tepco to provide information to the government more promptly.” As of this writing, the danger continues unchecked.
Yes, Fukushima is a monumental nuclear crisis requiring global expertise, ingenuity, creativity, and personal courage by workers to fix. But sharp-eyed business leaders will spot generic management failures that could bring any organization to its knees: even theirs.