The Sales Director of Biogen-Idec, Michiharu Kono’s airplane was about to hit the tarmac of Narita, Tokyo at 2:50 pm on March 11th 2011, and the plane suddenly regained altitude and circled the city for two hours to finally land at Handed at 6 pm. Kono-san had no idea what had happened. He then had to wait for seven hours at the taxi stand without food or water and finally a two hour taxi ride to his colleagues’ apartment in central Tokyo and finally got home at 4 am. His first action of duty on March 4th was to drive to 12 hours to Tohoku to rescue the one medical representative and his family from the disaster zone. On arriving in Sendai he found that all gas stations were closed and they were unable to find petrol for the trip back. Kono-san left his car in Yamagata and they then caught a series of local busses to Tokyo one day later.
The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake was a crisis was of a magnitude that few had ever experienced. Morunda KK asked the leaders of Japan’s foreign pharmaceutical companies, what was the reaction and response from the leaders of the pharmaceutical industry? What lessons had been learnt in crisis management?
A president of one of America’s major drug companies mentioned that the leaders who stepped up to the plate were those who were able to make decisions with a minimal amount of information. Other leaders were frustrated by their company’s inability to take the lead and would only take the necessary action to secure the safety of their people in affected areas after certain Japanese companies had done so.
Companies opened their building and let the general public sleep in the foyer and provided food and shelter. Leaders showed Churchillian strength and refused to leave Japan even under immense pressure from friends and family watching the constant loop of images on CNN in their home countries. One president remarked, “A captain does not leave his ship”. Another said, “if I was to leave then I would have lost all credibility from my team”. One president told his expatriate team that they could leave but it would be a one way ticket. He curtly told HQ when they offered to send the corporate Jets to Japan to rescue the non-Japanese that they had better secure half a dozen A380’s for all employees not just a selected few.
Some Tokyo based employees complained to us that they were asked to go to Osaka on business trips and leave families to fend for themselves in Tokyo. This was a rarity as most pharma companies asked their employees to stay home for the week. Other employees said that customers had complained that they had left the disaster zones too quickly unlike many of the Japanese companies. The country managers we spoke to were resolute, “the safety of our people come first”.
Many of the leaders interviewed said that making decisions quickly and decisively was paramount. However, this was not always the case. One HR director mentioned if he had his time over again then he would dispense of a number of meetings and go straight into action. A plan had been made and now was a time for implementation not more meetings. “We need to plan like our lives depended it because one day it just might”
It appears that the biggest learning point of the crisis is to plan for the worse, get the best possible information and act decisively knowing that mistakes will be made but action is more important than meetings
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