Reflections from Japan
In 1998 AHEAD approached Kit Simmons, a young British candidate working in Oxford, to join Toyota’s European HQ in Brussels. Now in a senior role at their Japanese HQ, Kit relates his experiences when the recent earthquake struck…

kit_simmonsI was sitting at a meeting table on the 24th floor of our corporate HQ in Nagoya. We received just a 3.5 quake, compared to Tokyo’s 5.5 and the epicentre further north, off Sendai of 8.9-9.1.

Nevertheless, it was certainly memorable. I first became aware of movement as the floor fell silent and the window blinds started swaying. We received only horizontal movement. My secretary was clutching her standard issue hard hat and was half way below her desk. Most people just stayed where they were. The swaying seemed to go on for ages but in reality it was about 2 minutes. At its peak, our floor (which is roughly the middle of the building in terms of height, and so is designed to absorb most of the shock) was moving approximately 1 meter from side to side. Like being on a ship.

It was an awe inspiring experience. You cannot truly understand the power of mother nature until you go through it. Suddenly next month’s targets do not seem so important.

How did people react?
japan_1In the immediate aftermath, no one understood how serious it was; we went off to dinner as usual that evening and it wasn’t until I reached home and switched on the TV, that I understood what had actually happened; over 20,000 people were missing as a giant Tsunami, now estimated to have reached 34 metres in places, overwhelmed much of the east coast of northern Japan.

In the following days, there was a mixture of fear, shock and everyday life. In Nagoya, which was completely unaffected, everyone showed up for work, and in the evenings, the restaurants were as full as ever. It was hard to believe we were in the same country as those, whose images we could see on TV, who’d lost everything. Then news started to reach us concerning the state of the atomic plant in Fukushima. In many ways this was much more frightening than an earthquake - which you can see and feel - and which is over in minutes. In the first days, no-one understood how serious the leak was and how in danger we might be (although we were 500km south west of the plant).

In the absence of clear statements concerning the extent of the leak and a general mood of distrust of official government statements (in a culture where issues tend to be ‘minimised’ and ‘harmony’ emphasised), a mood of disquiet soon became one of resigned acceptance amongst the locals and, fed by the global media machine, almost unhidden panic, amongst expats.

If I walked out on my local team at their lowest point, how could I return and look them in the eye later?

One of the biggest issues at the time was trying to get objective reporting as to what was going on. In this respect both the BBC World Service (which became one of the key reference points even for local staff) and the UK Embassy in Tokyo were unsurpassed. The UK embassy took the unusual step of publishing the transcripts of telephone conferences with the UK Scientific Advisory Group (SAGE). SAGE’s calm analysis did a great deal to dispel the panic amongst the UK expat community and wider.

Nevertheless, many expats chose to leave or repatriate their families. I chose to stay since I couldn’t find any factual reason why I should leave and also because I really felt that if I walked out on my local team at their lowest point, how could I return and look them in the eye later? Nevertheless, I and those who chose to stay found ourselves answering dozens of mails from worried friends and family every day and in the strange position of justifying to them why we were staying put. That was quite exhausting.

How has Toyota coped with the disaster?
True to its culture, Toyota’s reaction was firstly for the safety of its staff, dealers and suppliers and also for its customers. An automated safety system called each employee, throughout Japan, who was invited to confirm their immediate safety and need of assistance. That’s quite impressive. Secondly Toyota’s resources were mobilised to move aid to the stricken area, using dealerships as distribution centres and focusing on dealers’ employees and local communities.

Next, Toyota employees were sent to help get dealerships and suppliers back to basic operating levels as soon as possible; one of the biggest needs in the stricken areas was for mobility. Many customers wanted to repair flood damaged vehicles; mobility and transportation is a basic necessity in the recovery effort.

I think the company’s reaction was an interesting insight into the much deeper connectivity between business and society in Japan; Japan is a collective culture and corporations play a significant role in gluing together the individual and society. Working here, that has become much more apparent but the earthquake made the roles even more visible.

What is your current role?
Here in Japan, I’m working in a General Management role, as part of a programme to globalise the company’s management. As such, I’m learning as much as I’m imparting. Although like Russia, the main satisfaction comes from developing younger staff; giving them an insight into western management approaches, including the space to spread their wings, take decisions and make mistakes in a safe environment. That’s quite different from the Japanese management style they might have experienced so far.

It must be quite a contrast to your previous assignment in Russia. What was your mission there?
Before Japan, I worked for almost 5 years as a board director at our Russian operations, responsible for the After Sales business. Still today, I look back on that time as the best experience and opportunity of my lifetime - I had the chance to lead the team through all the challenges associated with the tripling - and then halving of the market within 5 years.

japan_2The chance to shape the business - and especially the culture - was amazing. The average age of our employees was just 28. Thanks to a strong education system and the ‘rampant capitalism’ they have lived through, they were very streetwise and fast learners. There is no better feeling than watching your team grow in ability and confidence. It was the most fulfilling experience I could imagine and personally changed me deeply; maybe strangely, the most significant thing for me was demonstrating and proving my own skills to myself.

Moving from Russia to Japan, was indeed quite a contrast. Daily life here has been surprisingly simple although you need professional help to get through all the official administrative requirements. Office life has probably been a greater challenge, since working inside a large Japanese company is completely different from visiting one. There is a strict hierarchy and very formal rules and rituals surrounding even the simplest activities. In many ways I can feel a growing gap between Japanese business and the ‘younger’ popular culture surrounding it. And that, together with the need to truly ‘globalise’ is probably the biggest challenge facing Japan today.

What advice would you give to a young professional presented with an unexpected opportunity, as you were?
When AHEAD approached me out of the blue almost 13 years ago, I never intended to spend my career working abroad or in the automotive sector, but I’ve never looked back. Working abroad has broadened my ‘life experience’ unimaginably. As for automotive, it is one of the oldest industries but in many ways one of the most dynamic. I’ve been able to experience so many different fields and markets all from inside one industry. So I’d definitely recommend it.