Coping with disaster

Two months after Japan’s devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, automakers in the U.S. continue to struggle with supply disruptions.

The Japanese automakers had the most trouble: Toyota is only operating at about 30 percent of normal capacity and is not expected to get back to full operation until the end of the year, although it recently said it expects to resume normal output of eight models built in North America by next month.

The American car companies had a sizable crisis to deal with also because of suppliers in Japan. It appears they have weathered the worst of the storm, however.

It took a dedicated group of General Motors employees working a disaster response operation to get through what GM’s CEO Daniel Akerson described as “white-knuckle time” right after the March 11 devastation.

Although GM gets fewer parts from companies in the troubled areas than its Japanese competitors, several GM plants in the U.S. scaled back production and two were briefly idled because of supply chain shortages coming out of Japan. We are now learning how close GM came to stopping production and how much work was necessary to keep the assembly lines running.

Four days after the earthquake, GM had assembled hundreds of employees into a team that began working around the clock on what was called “Project J.” They worked in three windowless “crisis rooms” on the seventh floor at the Vehicle Engineering Center in Warren, Mich.