Andrew Hill of the Financial Times recently wrote about managing crises and how all the planning required today cannot suffice when a situation is beyond catastrophic. He uses lessons learned from a second site in Japan that was equally overcome by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the island in March 2011 as the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Hill says, "managing in a crisis is not just about planning."
He cites an article in Harvard Business Review about how a sister plant of Fukushima Daiichi dealt with similar events to their nuclear reactors after the disastrous tsunami reached them. At this second plant, three of the four reactors lacked the power to run the necessary cooling systems after the waves knocked them out. Nothing prepared the site superintendent and his team for what was happening. As events spun out of control, the site superintendent took to the whiteboard and wrote down what the team knew and didn't know. He turned incidents into data by writing on a whiteboard the frequency and magnitude of the aftershocks in the hope that it would show that they were decreasing. He soon saw that this was not the case. But by using the whiteboard, the superintendent and his team collectively were able to make sense of the senseless and the unknowable. The superintendent also forced himself not to supply answers or try to reduce uncertainty for his team by pretending he had a plan when everyone was shaken to the core wondering if their family members were alive or if they'd make it out alive altogether. The use of the whiteboard fascinated me because it became a mechanism to control the chaos. It became a personal self-organizing system to ward off crippling ambiguity and a way to replace uncertainty with facts, even if they were not what he wanted them to be. Because the team faced the threat of a radioactive breach if they could not rig up a cooling system in time, his whiteboard writings of events and numbers exposed patterns to the madness and most probably, helped the team feel that they were making sense out of fear. At one point, the superintendent returned to his whiteboard and "ordered a subordinate to write up the overall picture of the plant and an outline of the recovery strategy. He was determined to share information with his workers as it became available, slowly replacing uncertainty with meaning."
The article is a good reminder that crisis response is shaped by leaders in unimaginable ways. Reputations are built on the large and small ways we respond.