Tuck

Nissan: Recovering from Japan’s 2011 Tohoku Earthquake

June 12, 2014 -- Guest post by Taylor Harrington T'14 --

This past January, I saw an announcement from Tuck’s Center for Global Business and Government about a research grant from the Mitsui Foundation for studies in Japan.  I was thrilled.  I wanted to apply to accomplish two of my high-priority MBA objectives: travelling to Asia and learning more about lean manufacturing practices.  My proposal focused on understanding how lean and just-in-time manufacturing helped Japanese businesses recover from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.  I decided to use Nissan as a case study because of their well-publicized quick return to full productivity after the disaster.  Thankfully my proposal was accepted and I was off to Japan a couple of months later.

Nissan’s headquarters in Yokohoma was the main site of my interviews.  The facility was incredible.  Nissan Hall, a 4,000-square-meter showroom on the first floor, featured the coolest new Nissan prototypes and limited-release series (e.g. the Calsonic IMPUL GT-R racer below).  I could have spent hours perusing the inventory.

The feedback I heard at Nissan and elsewhere surprised me.  In my proposal, I hypothesized that the strength of the Japanese recovery from the earthquake was due primarily to operational preparedness.  While many of the folks I met highlighted lean practices as one driver of business resilience, most believed Japanese support networks were more important.  Interviewees consistently pointed to formal inter-company arrangements (“Keiretsu” in Japanese) and unofficial relationships as the centerpieces of the Japanese response.  For example, each of the “big three” automakers (Toyota, Nissan, Honda) sent employees to a chip manufacturer that had sustained damage to help get the business back up and running.  No money was exchanged; the support was voluntary.  Similar examples abound and span back in history.  As I learned more about these relationships, I realized my research should focus more prominently on them.

Spending time outside of offices gave me the opportunity to observe some of the unique cultural aspects that allowed Japan to bounce back from the 2011 quake.  Walking around the Meiji and Asakusa shrines in Tokyo, I met two locals who happily sidelined their afternoon plans to give me insider tours of the sites.  One even introduced me to a friend in the auto industry for my interviews.  That kind of willingness to help others and extend relationship capital was a huge contributor to Japan’s recovery and to my project.  Other, simpler things, like riding the metro also provided helpful cultural insights.  Lanes and queues are demarcated everywhere around public transport.  Operational efficiency is deeply ingrained in many aspects of day-to-day life, another saving grace during the quake.

I think my interviews and rich cultural experiences will yield two kinds of personal benefits.  First, I will rely on my insights from the trip to build a disaster management playbook over the next few weeks that will serve as a tangible best practices guide for me in my career and for others who read it.  Second, I’ve developed a more global mindset – greater mental flexibility around different business norms, more comfort with new surroundings and people, and higher awareness of global business issues.  I am grateful to the Mitsui Foundation, Tuck, and the Center for Global Business and Government for such a tremendous developmental opportunity.

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