A fish rots from the head.That’s how I was taught at TMMC our fine old plant in Cambridge Ontario. But evidently, there’s a very different mental model in nuclear power industry.
The past few years I’ve reported the extraordinary story surrounding the nuclear meltdown at three Fukushima reactors in 2011. Well, the truth is finally out.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPPCO) President Naomi Hirose, and senior director Takafumi Anegawa have formally apologized to the people and President of Japan for TEPPCO’s lying about the biggest problem a nuclear power company can have.
An investigative report released last Thursday by three company-appointed lawyers said TEPCO's then-president, Masataka Shimizu, instructed officials not to use the phrase ‘meltdown’ under pressure from the prime minister's office, though the investigators found no proof of such pressure.
The report said TEPCO officials, who had suggested possible meltdowns, stopped using the description after March 14, 2011, when Shimizu's instruction was delivered to the vice president at the time, Sakae Muto, in a memo at a televised news conference. Shimizu had a company official show Muto his memo and tell him the prime minister's office has banned the specific words.
Government officials also softened their language on the reactor conditions around the same time, the report said.
Former officials at the prime minister's office have denied the allegation. Mama mia…
How do such cultures evolve?
Hubris is humanity’s original sin – so the Great Books tell us. Pride cometh before the Fall…
Power, you’ll have heard me say, too often means the power to do stupid things. “Look at me – I am President/CEO/COO/CFO/CMO/SVP…! I have climbed to the top of the mountain. Why should I follow your lowly standards?”
Standards go out the window – Ethics, respect for people, including team members, customers and the community go first. “A fish rots from the head.”
Operational standards soon follow – front line work, critical safety work (e.g. Lock Out/Tag Out, and Confined Space Entry…), managerial work like team huddles, Leader STW and the like.
Before too long everybody is lying. Organizations facing severe competition soon totter & collapse. The examples are too numerous to mention.
If the organization is ‘protected’ (e.g. oligopoly, government monopoly etc.), this can go on for years, the costs passed on to captive customers. (The ultimate sign of disrespect, no?)
Eventually, though the termite-infested structure wobbles, then falls down entirely. The shareholders, or in TEPPCO’s case, the Japanese people, are left to pick up the pieces.
(The collapse of standards in major institutions has broader societal implications, of course. Standards are our shields, no? They help us distinguish right from wrong, and thus make problems visible, so we can fix them.
Historian Edward Gibbons tell us that the Roman Empire collapsed when the nobles were no longer strong enough to carry their own shields. The Romans, Gibbons suggests, ‘outsourced’ standards, which he called ‘civic virtue’, to barbarians.)
What’s the countermeasure?
Visibility, visibility, visibility. We humans are tricky, lazy & dishonest. Monopolies, oligopolies, NGO’s and others lacking public oversight have repeatedly succumbed to hubris’ siren song.
Taiichi Ohno, chief architect of the Toyota Production System, went to factory floor every day to go see what was happening, warts and all. Reality keeps us humble and TPS methods at heart are about making problems visible.
St. Jerome kept a human skull of his table. How many of leaders have such humility?
The best leaders I know try to build a management system and a culture that makes problems visible at each level. Then on a regular basis, they go see what’s there, and help out where they can.
We safely assume that Mr. Hirose and his merry band, and their ilk around the world, do no such thing.