Japan’s tsunami supply chain comeback
After the paralysis of the global supply chain caused by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March, there have been the inevitable calls for a rethink of global, just-in-time supply systems. Some predicted that the disruption would last until the end of the year, if not longer. But just four months on, Japan's recovery is taking place with remarkable speed, in large part because of the unusual brand of co-operative capitalism that underpins the tight-knit and remarkably resilient Japanese business system.
July's figures revealed that Japan's industrial production had risen for the third month in a row, with auto manufacturers reviving especially strongly. Mitsubishi Electric also announced better than expected first-quarter profits, and has revised upwards its earnings estimates for this year. Other companies have responded strongly too: Hitachi, much of whose domestic production capacity is located in the area most affected, was almost fully operational by the end of March, while Hitachi Port, crippled by the disasters, reopened on April 3.
Held in awe by many in the west in the 1980s, Japan's system has until recently fallen out of favour for being slow to adjust to changing macroeconomic conditions, resulting in the country's two lost decades. Yet the tsunami has actually revealed the system's capacity for rapid recovery – just as it did following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and the 2007 Chuetsu earthquake.
Many of the current supply problems are due to damage at a plant belonging to electronics group Renesas, in Hitachinaka. The plant, jointly owned by NEC, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric, produces a significant share of the world's automotive microcontroller chips. The parent firms have sent hundreds of staff to help with the recovery, but, more interestingly, Renesas's customers are helping out too, with Toyota, Honda and others dispatching staff to help with recovery efforts. At one point, there were nearly 3,000 non-Renesas employees at the plant, mostly engineers. As a result production restarted on June 1, much earlier than first anticipated. By late September production should be back to pre-quake levels.
This pattern, in which usually fierce competitors have come quickly to each others' aid, has been repeated elsewhere. Take Hitachi Chemical, which has two factories at Namie, a short distance from the Fukushima nuclear station. One plant produces carbon brushes for heavy- duty electric motors, which are used in vital public infrastructure. Kazuyuki Tanaka, Hitachi Chemical's chief executive, has noted that restarting production was more important than revealing “some important parts of our knowhow to our competitors”. Here, as at Renesas, help has been offered, and accepted, without contracts and without discussion of financial arrangements.
平日里競爭激烈的對手迅速相互施以援手，這種情形在日本其它地方也很普遍。就拿日立化成工業(Hitachi Chemical)來說，它在距離福島第一核電站(Fukushima)不遠處的浪江町(Namie)有兩家工廠，其中一家生產用於重型電動機（用於必不可少的公共基礎設施建設）的碳刷。日立化成工業首席執行官田中一之(Kazuyuki Tanaka)就曾表示，恢復生產比“保護我們的重要技術不被洩露給競爭對手”更重要。這里和瑞薩工廠的情形一樣，在接到其他企業的援助並決定接受的整個過程中，沒有簽訂任何合同，也沒有人討論費用該如何分配。
There has of course been major disruption, despite the speedy recovery. Even a few weeks of lost production is too much for the global clients of major Japanese companies to bear. A range of strategies are therefore being developed to improve resilience, including greater diversification of production and new arrangements to transfer design and production information across manufacturing sites. These will apply to facilities within companies, but also now may include formal agreements with competitors to provide substitute facilities in the event of a future disaster.
In spite of this, and especially given the speed at which supply chains have bounced back, there is little sign that Japanese companies are planning to turn their backs on their traditional “just in time” manufacturing strategies, let alone leave Japan entirely. Professor Takahiro Fujimoto of the University of Tokyo, an expert on supply chains and the automotive industry, admits that improving supply chain resilience must be a priority, but believes this can be done without “sacrificing competitiveness”.
儘管如此，尤其是考慮到供應鏈恢復的速度，沒有多少跡象表明日本企業打算拋棄它們傳統的準時制生產戰略，更不用說徹底搬離日本了。供應鍊及汽車製造業專家、東京大學(University of Tokyo)教授藤本隆宏(Takahiro Fujimoto)坦承，改善供應鏈的複原能力應放在重中之重，但他認為，這不需要“犧牲競爭力”就能實現。
The tsunami has graphically demonstrated how co-operative capitalism allows rapid mobilisation of resources and offers a hidden source of resilience to efficient but vulnerable supply chains. It now seems clear that the latest crisis has strengthened, not weakened, Japan's distinctive form of capitalism.
George Olcott is a professor at the research centre for advanced science and technology at the University of Tokyo. Nick Oliver is head of the University of Edinburgh Business School
喬治•奧爾科特(George Olcott)是東京大學尖端科學技術研究中心教授。尼克•奧利弗(Nick Oliver)是愛丁堡大學商學院(University of Edinburgh Business School)負責人。