Are you in Crisis Mode? Lessons from Japan's Tohoku Earthquake

April 11, 2013
A professional colleague, Stacie DePeau, MBA, PMP, and parent extraordinaire, sent a link to me last week. The link took me to an article that detailed how one company and its local Tokyo retail store management dealt the earthquake in Japan. Although some will be distracted by the feel-good marketing halo the story inspires, the account contains a check list of crisis management issues in narrative form that are relevant for every C-level hospital executive

A professional colleague, Stacie DePeau, MBA, PMP, and parent extraordinaire, sent a link to me last week. The link took me to an article that detailed how one company and its local Tokyo retail store management dealt the earthquake in Japan. Although some will be distracted by the feel-good marketing halo the story inspires, the account contains a check list of crisis management issues in narrative form that are relevant for every C-level hospital executive. And I mean every C-level exec, not just the CIOs and CMOs who own their respective crisis management plans. Said differently, there’s a leadership story here.

What did I learn from the article?

1. Admirable local management behavior of a commercial entity and their decision to own their supply chain played a positive role in crisis management. This multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporation has invested in a local retail presence, as opposed to and unlike their competitors. Those competitors tend to use third party franchisees with big-box, retail chain store distribution. This company was already well aware of, and invested in, controlling the local experience, just as larger health care delivery systems build and protect their brand experience at their facilities.

2. There was a distinct benefit to owning the building (related to #1). Its design contributed to survivability, business continuity and sustainability. The strong wooden tables, the isolated building attributes, the open floor plan. Again, compare the retail experience you see in the photo above with the cramped, high-stacked shelf space of their competitors.

3. The specific contribution of free WiFi and FaceTime service to connect to the outside world. Not cell phone connectivity. Although the reliability of Japanese WiFi services varied in the face of the disaster, I suspect those of us in the U.S. would not do as well. My video conferencing quality-of-service often degrades at 4 p.m. on non-crisis weekdays when school lets out!

For more on the critical role of information systems and communications technology in response to disasters, I suggest you visit two links, here and here.

These links will acquaint you with Jennifer Leaning, MD, SMH, with whom I studied about a dozen disasters in depth during my MPH training.The course I attended was called Disaster Management 205, and it’s still being taught 20 years later.Not surprisingly, Dr. Leaning led the discussion session of the Harvard coordinated relief effort for the current relief projects in Japan.

4. The strengths and weaknesses of infrastructure in response to disasters, i.e. Skype, FaceTime, etc., outlined in the account echoed a recurring theme. Mobile communications infrastructure has long played a critical role in responding to disasters. However, 20 years ago, during the course I mentioned, we discussed how U.S. cellphone networks became useless because of saturation issues during a crisis. Protecting the bandwidth for relief workers was not in the design. I am frequently reminded that this still happens on a very regular basis. The only phone my public health physician friends trust is the satellite phone, which requires a line-of-sight to the area of the sky containing the satellite.

On the other hand, last year I discovered how trivially easy and inexpensive it was to add WiFi extenders to bring the Internet to my backyard. But, I digress. For a current review of communication strategies, see the 2009 working paper, "Applying Technology to Crisis Mapping and Early Warning in Humanitarian Settings - Crisis Mapping Working Paper I of III."

5. The "anticipate and contain" mentality of management to quickly stock up on food, chargers, etc., implied forethought. Were they simply executing a pre-scripted plan? Were they composed and improvising? Were they trusting and empowered such that, despite being in survival mode, they were actually following checklists, as well as planning and executing as though they were in growth mode?

What did you learn about crisis management from the earthquake?

“America's health care system is in crisis precisely because we systematically neglect wellness and prevention.”

Tom Harkin

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