Just In Time = Almost Too Late

Today I am reminded of my training as an engineer in manufacturing about the Just In Time principle. What reminded me? A flower I planted from seed. I have planted this flower every year for the past ten years with good success, that is, until this year. Maybe the seeds were affected by COVID, but the end result didn’t happen as it should have. I planted the seeds in late May and within a few days they germinated and began to grow. They grew, and grew, and grew, but only the foliage. There was not a flower within sight for well over four months. I distinctly remember that the package stated seventy days from germination to flowers. It is now the third week in October and the damned plant finally began to show flowers. It is a simple Morning Glory. My recollection is that in prior years I enjoyed these blooms beginning in August. What happened this year is strange. All I know is that we are about two weeks away from a killing frost and there are still only a few blooms showing in a mass of foliage. Disappointing to say the least. At least the plant met the deadline of blooming before a the frost shuts it down, or Just in Time.

In the manufacturing world of the eighties and nineties Just in Time manufacturing was a system used by the Japanese car companies to streamline their assembly process. The company I worked for was steeped in the study of these concepts. Basically, just in time means that parts arrive at the assembly line minutes before they are needed to put into the unit. Why waste providing warehouse space to hold parts before they are needed. Put that together with the labor required to unload and stock the warehouse and then to unload it again when it is needed. The factory floor is less cluttered with inventory meaning a smaller factory is needed, and the company doesn’t pay for goods to sit around waiting for a time to be used. It works and does save money, but at the price of too many employees’ nervous systems overloading when a car is coming down the line and you still don’t have the next part needed. Therein, we coined the phrase “almost too late.” The Japanese system relies on parts manufacturers being located within a one day drive from the assembly plant. The vision is that raw materials flow from the ground to the steel mill, to the component manufacturer to the assembly plant in a smooth uninterrupted flow, just like water flowing through a pipe from the well into your glass.

Recent headlines during COVID citing the computer chip shortage are prime examples of a just in time system that failed. How any auto company allowed that to happen is beyond me. It is, however, easy to visualize happening when the chips are a part of a JIT system and the company making the chips suddenly has a huge shortage of manpower down with the virus, and it is non-stop for a year, meaning that the shortage continues as more and more employees get the virus as time marches on. Henry Ford’s original idea of building a process that was vertically integrated so that his company made every part of the car, without involving outside suppliers solves this problem. The trouble with vertical integration is that the factory becomes so frickin huge it is impossible to manage. It also means that one company has to be expert at making thousands of discreet components all of which require their own experts. Separate companies specializing in discreet components can become very adept at making starters, radiators, brakes, etc. Even body parts like fenders, and hoods require experts in stamping and processing large sheets of metal.

In a phone discussion with a Ford employee this morning I learned that at this time Ford has more cars to sell than any company on the planet, and Ford is building more cars than any other car company. I can testify that the Ford dealer in my town finally has new cars and trucks on the lot.

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