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Thoughts on Disaster — from Japan

Thoughts on 2011 Japan Disaster Series

  1. Thoughts on Japan Disaster (you are here)
  2. The Role of Quality in Crisis
  3. VOC Issues for High Impact Projects

"I thought we would die!" e-mailed a Japanese professor in Ishinomaki City who attended the 2009 QFD Symposium in Savannah.

"The tsunami you saw on the news came to the street just below my hill-top house. I feel like I am in a science fiction movie."

As you are aware, Japan has suffered a four-fold disaster: M9.0 earthquake + 15m tsunami + nuclear radiation that threatens health, housing, farming, fisheries, and transportation + electricity shortages throughout Tokyo and other eastern Japan prefectures that have disrupted supply lines both domestically and for Japan earthquake diagrams by U.S. Geological Survey

We quality professionals are seeing many of our successful improvement methods in a new light. Have we missed something? Did we make mistakes? What can we offer to address these immediate concerns and prevent them in the future?

First, all our Japanese colleagues and their families are safe, and thank the world community for their caring thoughts and prayers for those directly and indirectly impacted by this disaster.

Several of the medical professionals who have presented at or attended QFD Symposia are busy providing round-the-clock relief services to the victims despite working in the most difficult conditions. Others are volunteering at their university shelters for victims who have lost their homes

The QFD Institute asked several of our Japanese colleagues to share their thoughts with us -- both personal and professional. This and future newsletters will try to summarize their comments and questions in the hope that we can generate an international dialogue on these events and a new role for quality in general and QFD in particular.

Note also that there have been papers published at past International Symposium on QFD (ISQFD), on the use of QFD in the Japanese nuclear and hydropower industry that may add insight to this discussion.

Here is the voice of the Japanese QFD community.

Job Safety — workers at the troubled nuclear power are doing everything they can to bring the situation under control. They are literally staking their lives on this, despite the knowledge of radiation risk. Their sense of mission and responsibility is something beyond words, we owe them tremendously.

Nuclear Power — the industry will face numerous challenges, all of them very difficult issues, such as site selection conditions, building structure, nuclear power device issues, disaster preventive measures, how to prevent radiation pollution from spreading, etc.

Alternative Energy — solar power, deep sea boring in the Japan Sea, geothermal, windmills, fuel cells, etc. All of these must be addressed from political policy perspectives.

Dealing with Improbable Events (Black Swan) — This earthquake was a natural disaster that far exceeded conventional human knowledge. It reminded us of how vulnerable we are in the power of nature. The sea walls and barriers which we thought to be completely adequate based on the past experience proved to be utterly useless in the face of an earthquake and aftermath tsunami beyond our imagination.

Design for Function — Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station) found itself in the ironic situation where the electric power company could not supply electric power for safe operation of their nuclear power plant.

Design for Safety — From a QFD perspective, safety is clearly one of the most critical demanded qualities for a nuclear power plant. Needless to say, safety is strictly emphasized in all areas of the nuclear power plant process such as design, construction, operation, maintenance, service, etc. Typical methods include redundancy, Fault Tree Analysis, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, and implementation of thorough and regular maintenance checkups for preventing an accident or malfunction from happening.

In addition, numerous sensors are installed all over the facilities so that even the slightest abnormality can be detected or even predicted beforehand. In this sense, the nuclear power plant was considered a safe system from a technology and engineering viewpoint, and thus their construction was permitted. TEPCO's Radiation Management Group at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant Technology even received a Quality Innovation Award in 2000 from the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE).

Value Engineering — This method is one of the basic approaches in QFD to help reduce cost, by graphing its relationship to function. This value curve helps decide what level of performance based on realistic expectations. Based on historical research, the nuclear plant was built to withstand a M8.0 earthquake. Had it been "supposed" that a M9.0 earthquake would occur (greater than the highest conceivable level), the increased cost may have made the project unfeasible.

Role of QFD — Since its beginnings in the 1960s, many new tools and techniques have strengthened the method. The essence of QFD is its design documentation. Unlike tangible attributes such as the dimensions of a gear, for example, that can be documented in a drawing, intangibles like quality are about defining intent and communicating it to subsequent activities. In QFD, this is done through documentation such as the matrices and tables we use. While QFD is absolutely useful where requirements are known, what should be its role in unexpected or improbable scenarios? Efforts are now underway to create an ISO standard for QFD and this must be emphasized.

Politics and Policy — the response and aid to the disaster area is taking too long. Because Japan is a parliamentary system, the power of the prime minister is rather limited compared with that of the U.S. president. The Japanese system also requires group consensus and this prevents speedy decisions. Our government needs a special fast decision process to be employed in life-threatening national emergencies. Many foreign NGOs arrived in Japan immediately to assist local volunteers, while the government waited nearly a week.

Communication — the government is responsible for providing accurate and timely information to its citizens. When data is unclear, trust is broken and people may panic and engage in behaviors such as hoarding goods.

The Japanese People — in the midst of this unthinkable disaster, the Japanese people have remained civil and orderly, sharing and helping others. Panic, theft, and violence have been absent - attesting to the strong will of this culture to do what is right. We have much to be proud about.

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