Learning from Disaster – The Honshu Earthquake

Steve Covey called it Sharpening the Saw.  A good risk management program will be continually learning.  The school of hard knocks is an extremely expensive teacher.  It is much better to audit the course by observing the experiences of others and learning from them.  The effective risk management program will be actively working to audit the courses of others experiences.

With that in mind, Risk Management magazine has devoted the May 2011 issue to learning from the Honshu earthquake.  There are four articles that review some key aspects of the Japanese experience as it appears right now.

  • Nuclear Safety – the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor came from the multiple events that struck.  The safety provisions were sufficient for the earthquake, but not for the tsunami.  There are specific questions raised in the article here about the specific design of the reactor cooling system.  But a greater question is the approach to providing for extreme events.  The tsunami was greater than any on the historical record.  Should it be necessary to prepare for adverse events that are significantly worse than the worst that has ever happened?  If so, how much worse is enough?  Do we even have a way to talk about this important question?
  • Building Codes – the conclusion here is that Japanese building codes worked fairly well.  Many larger buildings were still standing after both the quake and the tsunami.  Christchurch did not fare as well.  But New Zealand codes were thought to be very strict.  However, the fault that was responsible for the earthquake there was only discovered recently.  So Christchurch was not thought to be in a particularly quake prone area.  As they overhaul the building codes in NZ, they do not expect to get much argument from strengthening the codes significantly in the Canterbury region.  The question is whether any other places will learn from Christchurch’s example and update their codes?
  • Supply Chain – the movement over the past 10 years or more has been to “just-in-time” supply chain management.  What is obvious now is that the tighter that the supply chain is strung, the more that it is susceptible to disruption – the riskier that it is.   What we are learning is that great efficiency can bring great risk.  We need to look at all of our processes to see whether we have created risks without realizing through our efforts to improve efficiency.
  • Preparedness – ultimately, our learnings need to be turned into actions.  Preparedness is one set of actions that we should consider.  The Risk Magazine focuses on making a point about the interconnectedness of all society now.  They say “Even a simple sole proprietorship operating a company in rural South Dakota can be negatively affected by political and social unrest in Egypt.”  We risk managers need to be aware of what preparedness means for each of our vulnerabilities and the degree to which we have reached a targeted stage of readiness.
Whenever there is a major crisis anywhere in the world, risk managers should review the experience to see what they can learn.  They can look for parallels to their business.  Can systems at their firm  withstand similar stresses?  What preparedness would create enough resilience?  What did they learn from their adversity?
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2 Comments on “Learning from Disaster – The Honshu Earthquake”


  1. The advice above is all valuable, but limited in perspective.

    In every new incident, we patch all the obvious flaws, only to make new and more subtle errors.

    In regulation, especially financial regulation, this invariably comes from unintended consequences.

    In engineering, the real issue is unrecognized correlations. In Fukushima, the tsunami wall was indeed high enough to withstand a real outlier of a wave. But the planners missed the risk that the ground level itself might subside. The wall was short by just the one meter sinking.

    Likewise, in the Bhopal tragedy, the “independent” failsafe mechanisms were in fact linked by poor trained staff and bad maintenance.

    A possible solution — AI simulations to uncover such relationships

    • riskviews Says:

      Very good suggestions.

      And good things to learn. The correlations are only unrecognized because people look for them in the past. They actually come in the future.


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