Monday, March 21, 2011

Emergency Preparedness Lessons from Japan

I am eating only yogurt today, thinking about the boy and his grandma who survived on nothing but, while for 9 days they were trapped in the kitchen of a house swept away by the tsunami.

Next to be seen floating by might be the 3rd largest bank in Japan, Mizuho Bank.  The lesson to be learned here is that people rush to cash in an emergency, and Mizuho's systems - and they have had trouble like this before - apparently were not able to scale to meet the demand.  ATMs malfunctioned and bank deposits could not be processed, so salaries for workers of employers who use Mizuho couldn't be paid. Foreign exchange transactions also stopped.

Can you imagine how much this is adding to the stress people feel?  When you are already trying to cope with the aftermath of an earthquake, tsunami, and radiation from damaged nuclear power facilities?  And rolling blackouts are taking out everything, including all the other banks' machines?

Mizuho suspects the problems were tied to a flood of transactions, but they are not sure, and that is perhaps most disconcerting.

All of its 38,000 ATMs at its branches and convenience stores were shut down over the weekend and through Monday, as Mizuho extended operating hours at its 440 branches, so that customers who did not get their paychecks can withdraw up to Y100,000.  Now, it looks like while branch ATMs may soon re-open, other ATMs will not. 

The situation regarding settlement of payments has become so dire that the Bank has asked in its primary competitors to help out - which could threaten to bring down the entire house of (debit) cards.  Mizuho will also end up disciplined, at least, by Japan's Financial Services Agency, the nation's primary regulator.

Add to this the fact that the Japanese fiscal year ends March 31 with another torrent of transactions, and one realizes that it indeed may not end just with Mizuho's 1 million or so customers.

Do I even have to say it?  It could happen here, and I hope you are all paying rapt attention.  Some lessons:
  • Make sure your IT is up to the scaling up that is required in an emergency, and don't wait for one to find out.
  • Use GIS to figure out how to get your employees to work in your branches, and which branches are most important to have open and ready, by understanding the geographic relationship between customers and branches; and how disaster impacts the ability to get from place to place.
  • Be prepared in-branch to manage an onslaught of customers well beyond what a branch is designed for, so that customers can be comforted as they wait to be served, both physically and emotionally.
  • Train customer service staff to better cope themselves, so they can better cope with emergency-stressed customers - and realize they have, albeit briefly, the chance of a lifetime to lend an ear and a heart as well as a few dollars.
  • Make sure your key managers have alternative places besides the Bank to meet.
  • Encourage customers to always have enough cash - and supplies - on hand to ride out an emergency of a week or more.

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