The Fukushima disaster in March 2011 has been well documented. The nuclear plant at Daiichi was devastated by three core meltdowns and three reactor building explosions following the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan. The challenges of containing and reducing the radioactive water and debris continue to this day – as does the rebuilding of the neighbouring community.

So it was with interest that I read an article ( Gulati et al, HBR Jul/Aug 2014) about the other Fukushima – its sister plant, Daini, which is about 10 km south and was also severely damaged as a result of the natural disaster.   Unlike the Daiichi plant, Daini survived without a meltdown or an explosion. So how did the site superintendent, Naohiro Matsuda, and his 400 man team, manage this incredible feat?

To put the events in context, the earthquake on March 11 was the largest ever recorded in Japan and the tsunami waves were three times higher than the plant was designed for. The power was almost knocked out, yet Matsuda and his team had to try to achieve a controlled cool down in the midst of a massive (and still emerging) natural disaster. In a brave and perhaps culturally atypical manner, “Matsuda acknowledged the evolving reality in which they were operating. He shared the burden of uncertainty and doubt” and engaged in a sense making process with his team. Working collaboratively, they tried to understand what had happened, what they were left to work with, and by almost a system of structured trial and error, how they could shut the plant down safely. Matsuda could have easily assumed ‘command and control’ as might be common in the time of war or similar crisis and issued orders to the team. But as a leader, Matsuda was vulnerable enough to voice that he didn’t have all the answers, that this complex scenario was unique and no one person could say with certainty what needed to be done. In fact only by adapting to the emerging situation together, by trying out solutions, and creating an environment where there was the ability to change tack if something didn’t work, was the team able to successfully bring the four reactors to a controlled shutdown.

This a frightening, but successful example of how complex adaptive systems behave – and the probe-sense-respond strategies that are needed in these situations. There was no operating manual that the workers could follow that could have catered for the events in March 2011. The situation was continually changing, new information was emerging all the time – and the team needed to be agile enough to both make sense of it and try out actions that would eventually create some certainty as to the route to a safe shutdown. All of this was happening to a group of humans (not just ‘workers’) who were unable to know the fate of their families and friends in the surrounding community. In contrast to the Daiichi plant where at one point the workforce shrank to 69 (as many people understandably sought safety), Matsuda had earned the trust and commitment of his team and all 400 stayed. On the morning of March 15, as Daiichi was unfortunately suffering its third explosion, all of the Daini reactors had been shut down.

Are there lessons for us all in how to lead complex projects? Matsuda will be taking his to his next job – in April last year he was appointed as Daiichi’s chief decommissioning officer…

Karen Cherrill – Director, Kingsfield Consulting