Recipe for Disaster

When Crisis Strikes, These Three Factors Can Rescue Project Managers


Aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Natori, Japan


By Joan Landry, PMP

A news alert on my phone woke me up one night. A 9.1-magnitude earthquake had struck off the coast of Japan, spurring a tsunami warning. Because my company has employees and products in Japan, we immediately activated the crisis management team.

In the days and weeks following that 2011 disaster, my team and I initiated projects to send relief supplies to employees in affected areas. We also launched projects to ensure our products and workers were not affected by contamination from the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown. Despite the uncertainty and fear, we successfully completed these projects by executing our crisis management plan. The experience, and other disasters since then, have provided us with three important lessons learned that we continue to benefit from.


Having plans and supply networks already in place allowed my teams to procure emergency supplies in the United States and get them delivered to Japan. But you can't fully prepare for every possible situation, and trying to do so is not a good use of resources. Instead, my teams aim for general, flexible emergency plans and then rely on their project management training and experience to quickly adapt the plans to fit the situation.

For instance, we learned that the Fukushima meltdown meant that Tokyo was in danger of not having enough electricity. So we quickly modified our general plan in case our employees had to be relocated from Tokyo.

Being innovative helps my project teams solve problems they have never encountered before. For instance, some of our employees in Japan wanted to continue to work within a gray area: outside the Japanese government's evacuation zone but within the international community's recommended 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius from the Fukushima plant. So we gave them Geiger counters to empower them to test for radioactive hot spots before entering an area.


During a crisis, staying focused on the task at hand is mission critical. For project managers, I noticed that the structure provided by following project management processes was reassuring to them. In spite of the disaster, my team took comfort in knowing the projects to manage it were organized in the same ways as any other project: with a scope, a budget and a timeline. In the aftermath of the earthquake, there was a heightened realization of the importance of contingency planning and the structure of project management at my company.

When disaster hits, your organization is counting on your team's knowledge and strong project management tools to successfully navigate these unusual events. PM

img Joan Landry, PMP, is a program manager for crisis and business continuity management at Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Illinois, USA.



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