The author is an Igorot pursuing his PhD degree in geotechnical engineering at the University of Tokyo, Japan.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, September 11, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

When one googles “the most disaster-prone country,” the search results give an impression that the Philippines is competing with Bangladesh for the title. Since like Bangladesh the Philippines has limited financial resources, applying sound business principles – which have been developed to maximize the use of available resources – could just be the right approach to mitigate and manage the effects of natural hazards that frequently bring destruction and tragedies to our country.

The Toyota Way on geo-hazards

With regard to maximizing the use of available resources, perhaps the most well-known business principles are those long advocated and practiced by Toyota, Japan’s largest company that is poised to become the world’s largest car company. But can these principles be applied to disaster mitigation and management?

Let’s look at three of Toyota’s management principles, and how they can be used for disaster mitigation – with particular focus on geo-hazards such as rain-induced landslides and earthquakes.

Harnessing employee intellect and creativity is the first principle. This is described by Gary Hamel in the February 2006 issue of The Harvard Business Review:

“Unlike its Western rivals, Toyota has long believed that first-line employees can be more than cogs in a soulless manufacturing machine; they can be problem-solvers, innovators and change agents. While American companies relied on staff experts to come up with process improvements, Toyota gave every employee the skills, tools and permission to solve problems as they arose and to head off new problems before they occurred.”

Bias for simple and inexpensive technology is the second principle. Toyota is known for its high-technology innovations, but behind the company’s mastery of high technology is its practice to understand the manual process first before building simple technologies to automate it. As pointed out by Dr. Jeffrey Liker in his book the Toyota Way, Toyota implements simple technologies to minimize investment and expedite implementation. Simple technologies are preferred because they are easy to refine and tune, while large automated systems are costly and more difficult to implement and change.

The third principle is the well-known “Kaizen,” which means continuous improvement. This principle can be actually thought of as an integral component of the first two principles.

Empowering barangays

In the context of geo-hazard mitigation and management, harnessing employee intellect and creativity can mean empowering barangays, such that the “common folk” are able to assess geo-hazards themselves and take appropriate measures to mitigate the effects of these hazards. While the information dissemination and education campaigns (IECs) and earthquake drills that government agencies have been spearheading are commendable, the destruction and tragedies we experience every year point out that we have to go beyond IECs and drills.

Empowering barangays, however, begs the following questions: Is this possible at all? Is this practical?

The Cordillera rice terraces already attest that the common folk can also be engineers and geologists. To demonstrate that the idea is practical, let us consider present engineering practice in evaluating landslide susceptibility due to rainfall.

In practice, one way to evaluate susceptibility is through scoring methods, an example of which is the ATC-1997 risk evaluation method. In this method, landslide susceptibility criteria, such as slope height and inclination, are listed on a form and for each criterion a slope is given a score based on measured and observed attributes of the slope, very similar to how beauty contests are conducted. To facilitate the scoring process, visual aids of slope attributes, e.g. shape and form of the slope, are provided.

If one takes a closer look at the data and information required to give a slope a sliding susceptibility score following this method, it can be observed that many, if not all, of these data can be obtained by ordinary people. Any construction worker can measure slope height and inclination using a measuring tape, a handy inclinometer and rope. Surface soil thickness can be easily measured by simply digging into the slope or using a simple soil penetrometer. The amount of rainfall can be simply measured using a tin can and a ruler; one does not need a weather station to do this, although, of course, it is always desirable to have more PAGASA weather stations around the country. As for the other information required, one just needs to be a keen observer.

Two weeks or so of skills training may be required, but such training can be provided by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) or PHIVOLCS. If we were to think further ahead, this training can even start in high school with curriculum changes in high school geometry and geology.


Simple and inexpensive tools

While investing in expensive high-tech gadgets and systems may enhance and sharpen our capabilities in dealing with geo-hazards, there are a number of inexpensive and simple tools and methods that can be extremely useful for a barangay-based geo-hazard mitigation and management program.

The Swedish penetrometer (for measuring surface soil thickness and strength) and Schmidt rebound hammer (for rock and concrete hardness) are examples of low-cost, basic tools that the government can subsidize for barangays. The use of  the Swedish penetrometer can become a very practical tool for a barangay-initiated, site-specific investigation because it is easy to use and the whole contraption can be fabricated by local machine shops, even those in rural areas.

In Japan, the Swedish penetrometer test is recommended by law for the evaluation of foundation strength for residential construction. Due to the portability of the equipment, this test has been also used by researchers and engineers in reconnaissance and surveys of landslide- and earthquake-disaster-stricken sites.

Kaizen in Geo-hazards

One simple truth that most engineers and researchers have realized is that there is no such thing as a one-time, one-size-fits-all solution when dealing with geo-hazards. While much progress has been made over the past decades in terms of scientific knowledge on geo-hazards, present understanding of their nature, assessment and mitigation is still far from complete. Thereby the need for Kaizen, which would mean the relentless pursuit of practical and cost-effective approaches in dealing with geo-hazards.

In rain-induced landslides, researchers are still confounded with the complexity and costs involved in accurately predicting and simulating their occurrences despite advances made in digital computing. This is the reason why a number of research activities on landslides are focused on observation and monitoring, and on the development of simple but measurable landslide susceptibility indices. Note that the keyword is susceptibility, not prediction.

Susceptibility indices can be obtained using simple tools, as earlier discussed. While wireless early-warning devices are now being developed, it can be argued that the barangay itself can perhaps observe a slope susceptible to failure better than any high-tech gadget. In the Cherry Hills landslide that occurred in 1999 and in the recent Guinsaugon landslide in Southern Leyte, communities in the vicinity had observed signs of impending failure.

One big advantage of the proposed barangay-based geo-hazard mitigation and management approach is that an empowered barangay itself can become a rich source of data, information and case histories of which assessment tools and mitigation measures worked and which did not. The ATC-1997 risk assessment methodology, for example, may work for some slopes, but it may not work for others since not all slopes have the same geologic and site characteristics. To a geologist or an engineer, feedback on the performance of present techniques and technologies are very important pieces of information.

Thus, while it may initially seem that empowering barangays means giving up one’s bread and butter, working and learning with them is actually one way to practice Kaizen and remain relevant. Working with them can, in fact, allow the geologist or engineer to devote more time and energy to pursue research on the many unresolved questions about geo-hazards and on more practical and cost-effective mitigation measures.

Considering the series of tragedies which we have already gone through, we indeed need to invest much more in geo-hazard mitigation and management. However, to make the most out of these investments and whatever resources we already have, we may have to follow the basic business principle that many of the most-admired companies have practiced: success is best achieved by relying more – not less – on people.