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When Kaoru Eguchi, deputy general manager of Nissan's Iwaki plant, saw the damage after the March earthquake, he thought the plant was finished. (Junko Kimura for The Globe and Mail/Junko Kimura for The Globe and Mail)
When Kaoru Eguchi, deputy general manager of Nissan's Iwaki plant, saw the damage after the March earthquake, he thought the plant was finished. (Junko Kimura for The Globe and Mail/Junko Kimura for The Globe and Mail)

After a year of disasters, Japan's auto sector fights back Add to ...

When he arrived at the plant the next day, he figured it was finished. The floor in the crankshaft machining shop had buckled and cracked and part of it fell 15 centimetres. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed. Overhead conveyor belts had fallen. Equipment was toppled over.

“I first thought it would not be possible to resume production in this plant any more,” Mr. Eguchi said. “I wanted to believe that it was just a dream instead of a reality.”

More than 500 kilometres away in Toyota City, Atsushi Niimi felt such a strong and lengthy sway in the 14-storey glass and steel headquarters of Toyota Motor Corp., that he thought the epicentre was nearby. Once damage reports began arriving, the Toyota executive vice-president had the same grim thought as Mr. Eguchi.

“I just gave up coming back to a normal situation this year,” Mr. Niimi said.

The damage from the strongest earthquake in Japanese history, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, was severe and widespread. More than 15,000 people were killed. The videos of the tsunami washing ashore and hurling fishing boats tens of kilometres inland near the port of Sendai were riveting.

The explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant caused power shortages that would last for months.

Millions of people were affected in less dramatic ways. Train and subway service was halted in the Tokyo area, for example, which led to some Nissan employees walking 20 kilometres or more from the company’s head office in Yokohama to get home and check on their families.

The most severe damage sustained by Honda was at a research and development facility in Tochigi, about 100 kilometres inland from the coast and southwest of Sendai. One employee at the centre, which includes a design studio, wind tunnel and crash test operation, was killed when a wall collapsed.

Yoshiharu Yamamoto, president of Honda R&D Co. Ltd., was unable to reach anyone in the facility by telephone and wanted to drive up to Tochigi from Honda R&D’s head office in Wako, northwest of Tokyo, but could not because of traffic chaos.

He managed to get his hands on a helicopter the next day. The flight revealed cars scattered haphazardly around the property.

“I always tell my people that they need to put things in order, keep them neatly,” Mr. Yamamoto said. “So I thought maybe I should go down and tell them that things need to be in order, I should scold them.”

When he landed, he realized the earthquake had strewn the cars about. The damage inside parts of the centre was so serious that he was not permitted to enter.

Burying the hatchet – temporarily

As damage assessments flowed in, it became clear to Mr. Yamamoto, Mr. Niimi and other senior executives among Japan’s Big Three that while the effects on their own plants were less severe than they originally feared, they could not get critical information from suppliers.

Soon after the quake, Mr. Niimi told Toyota’s chief executive officer, Akio Toyoda, that looming production shutdowns caused by the disaster would eliminate 2 million vehicles in 2011 or nearly one-quarter of the auto maker’s global output.

By Monday, March 14, parts shortages were multiplying and assembly plants had to be closed. What made it worse was that communicating with suppliers by telephone was virtually impossible and all the auto makers were trying on their own to reach parts makers, said Toshiyuki Shiga, chief operating officer of Nissan, in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Yokohama.

That’s when the auto makers went back to a concept known as genchi genbutsu, which roughly translated means: Go and see what the cause of problems is. Don’t rely on second-hand reports.

It’s one of the key doctrines espoused by legendary Japanese manufacturing guru Taiichi Ohno, credited as the father of the Toyota production system that has become the gold standard for how to run assembly lines.

Putting that principle into practice, Toyota sent 150 people to 200 sites in the earthquake zone to find out what was happening, Mr. Niimi said.

Those people were designated as leaders and were given a great deal of authority.

“If the leader required a person do a job, we just dispatched those people,” he said. “If we couldn’t find a capable person located in Toyota, we just found a capable person outside Toyota and dispatched them. If the leader told us we needed material, we just purchased that material.”

Japanese people are noted for their teamwork, Nissan’s Mr. Shiga said, but in this case it extended across the industry. He called Mr. Toyoda, Honda president Takanobu Ito and others to convince them that it would be easier to find out what was happening at suppliers if the industry acted as one group through the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.

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