TEPCO Chairman Takashi Kawamura talks about the "Last Man" perspective and how it can supercharge Japan's workforce
In 1999, Takashi Kawamura, then a vice president of global conglomerate Hitachi, was one of 500 passengers aboard a plane that was hijacked – and saved with the help of an off-duty pilot. The experience gave Kawamura evidence that critical decisions can rest with anyone in an organization, a way of thinking about employee engagement that he calls the “Last Man.” As he tells Brunswick in the interview below, “There are more chances to nurture these decision makers, these ‘Last Men,’ than you would think.”
Kawamura later became President and Chairman of Hitachi, where he helped the business reinvent itself in the face of rapidly changing technology and shrinking domestic demand. In 2017, he accepted a new position as the Chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO.
The large regional utility in Japan is emerging from an existential crisis of its own: TEPCO operates the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that suffered a meltdown after a tsunami in 2011. Shares of the company plummeted as much as 90 percent amid a flood of domestic and international compensation claims and calls for the country to close its nuclear facilities. The scale of the disaster was enormous and the cleanup continues today.
In our interview, Kawamura is positive about the future of nuclear energy but acknowledges the work the company still needs to do to help rebuild the lives of the people in the area around the reactor, and to allay the fears around nuclear power in general and TEPCO’s stewardship in particular. “It will take a sustained effort over a long time to restore the firm’s reputation,” he concedes.
Meanwhile, TEPCO continues to provide reliable energy and to grow in a dramatically changing energy environment. Kawamura sees the energy sector in Japan at a crossroads, where it must refocus its efforts toward innovation and globalization if it is to continue to grow. To further the pace of economic growth set in 2017, Kawamura feels the country’s most established businesses need to take a hard look at themselves.
Why is the “Last Man” view important now?
Outside Japan, people think deeply about self-determination, the need to form their own values.
There is a chronic shortage of that in Japan. People here view their role within an organization as listening to and obeying the people the organization labels as leaders.
Until the mid-1980s that wasn’t a problem; Japan was in resurgence, and population growth meant abundant demand. Now, however, unless Japanese people modify their decision-making process, I doubt that Japan will resolve its current deadlock. Even the leaders of small teams must begin to take final responsibility as the Last Man, considering and articulating the direction that their part of the company should take.
Japan faces some unprecedented challenges, such as an aging population. We need to get ahead on those issues. Japanese people have relatively little training in leading. Employees need to be encouraged to consider how they can affect the company’s overall direction. There are more chances to nurture these decision makers, these “Last Men,” than one might think, if we look for them.
My biggest lesson came while I was at Hitachi, and I found myself on a hijacked flight in Japan. An off-duty pilot who happened to be on board forced his way into the cockpit along with two others, took control from the hijacker and managed to save the aircraft. He had to break the airline’s rules to do it, but he saved the lives of more than 500 people.
That showed me, in a very dramatic way, that these “Last Men” existed in the world – that people can make these kinds of critical decisions. When I became President of Hitachi, I thought that I needed to try to be that Last Man, the final decision maker, and to have such leaders in each internal group.
In 2009, when you became Hitachi’s President, what was your top priority?
The main thing was speed. The decision-making process had been extremely time-consuming. If a second Lehman shock were to occur, or if the Greek crisis caused some European banks to collapse, Hitachi would go down as well. Even one US bank failure had a major impact on orders. Hitachi has a huge number of employees and alumni, as well as shareholders, so we had to consider not just stock price, but pensions and so forth; if the company failed it would have been disastrous.
We needed to make decisions quickly. We determined what we needed to do within three months. We had to close, downsize or expand divisions. We had to ask employees, some even in the prime of their careers, to retrain, transfer to different workplaces, or in some cases leave Hitachi. It was a tremendous upheaval. We had to do things that were painful. And we had to move quickly. We had no choice.