For the past decades, corporations such as Toyota, General Motors, Walmart, and others have practiced a supply chain blueprint called Just In Time. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many things, and the Just In Time practice (which will be referred to as JIT in this article) is one of them.
JIT began with Toyota, manufacturing automobiles. The JIT supply chain model is where the assembly plant receives the parts for the automobile in a manner that is just in time, that is to say, the delivery of parts comes just when needed, and the parts are used in the assembly of the automobile within hours.
The JIT model saved millions (some say billions, but whenever I asked them to show me the actual figures, they declined) of dollars in warehousing parts as well as the managers and personnel required to maintain those warehouses. Thousands of parts all arrive and within just a few hours they are assembled into the finished automobile.
The JIT model became a blueprint for logistics managers all across many industries. I dare say that many of these JIT-educated managers never managed a fleet of a trucks, never handled crates on a forklift, or tackled a complex assembly process by hand on the factory floor.
I was once threatened by a construction manager who was quite upset because his bricks weren’t delivered when his crew arrived, and so his crew had no materials with which to work. I told this manager that construction materials had long shelf lives, and if he wanted to ensure the materials were at the site, he could have had them delivered the day before, or he could have arranged a guaranteed delivery, for which a late delivery would have been compensated.
To my knowledge, JIT assembly never considered things like sick drivers, traffic jams, inclement weather, mechanical breakdowns, alternate routes due to construction, or any of the myriad of problems that could occur during manufacturing or transportation; all they wanted was what they needed at an exact time.
When everything went well, JIT was a great plan, but, in many cases, there weren’t any alternatives to problems.
The origin of JIT was Toyota, where in Japan, the entire country has an area of that of California. The very space and area of the United States dwarfs that of Japan. While the benefits of a federal highway system are a great asset, vast distances are a challenge and the problems that can occur within those distances seemed never to be a consideration. Every now and again parts had to be flown to the assembly plant in order to make it in time.
When everything went well, JIT was a great plan, but, in many cases, there weren’t any alternatives to problems. The Covid-19 pandemic caused a great problem, causing many of the former JIT practitioners to question its validity. The biggest problem at present time is the lack of computer chips, and modern automobiles have many computer chips. Assembly plants are stopped cold because of a lack of chips. Even the originator of JIT, Toyota, faced a plant shutdown in 2012 because of an unplanned earthquake that shut down a supplier which put a great kink in the JIT supply chain. From what I can recall, the part in question was rather small and cost less than five dollars. A five-dollar part cost Toyota millions of dollars, and yet, they still insisted that JIT was a wonderful innovative practice.
In many cases, the supplier did not finish making the parts on time, and then would insist that they loaded the truck on time and try to blame the trucking company for being late. I saw this finger-pointing game so much that it was sickening. I watched veterans of the industry quit because of the incessant pressure and finger-pointing when a delivery was late.
Covid-19 was an event for which no one could have planned. Problems often reveal the weak points in any plan. Having witnessed the potential problems in JIT, I was, and am, a critic of a blueprint whose problems I witnessed first-hand. Machines break down. People get sick. JIT was almost a religion with many people, apparently trained in a world where nothing goes wrong. If everything in my life never went wrong, perhaps things would be different. While I cannot say I plan on things going wrong, I know and accept that things will go wrong. The JIT program worked quite well when everything, and I mean everything, went as planned. When things didn’t go as planned, there was a great amount of finger-pointing, always ending in a blame game.
Undoubtedly, JIT has saved millions in personnel and warehouse expenses. There are specific applications where JIT is a great idea, like in a small island country that a truck could cross in less than two days. The fact remains that many of the plant shutdowns could have been prevented by just one trailer of spare parts. JIT was a great idea taken too far, by people who wanted to prove what they could do, when the only people who proved anything weren’t the ones who designed the crazy scheme that could fall apart with one small failure.
The failures created by Covid-19 finally revealed the flaws of a system whose application is less than ideal in certain situations; certain situations meaning anything at all not going exactly as planned.
Jeffrey Neil Jackson is an
Educator & Literary Mercenary