Is JIT dragging us down?

We all know these are tough economic times, but do we know why the economy is struggling so mightily? One theory is that JIT (and other lean manufacturing practices) are to blame. See, for example,

http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/12/pensee_dept_followup_on_the_no.php

The metaphor is simple, animals with stored fat are more likely to survive in times of scarcity than thin animals.  Alternatively, think of a group of hikers on a glacier. JIT means they all tied together with very short ropes so when one falls, they all fall in quick succession.  Are these metaphors correct? Is lean manufacturing the cause of our woes? There is reason to believe it is in fact the scapegoat.

Consider the auto industry and GM in particular.  Their demand is now much lower than their capacity.  (Actually, it has been for a long time, just now there is a very large discrepancy.) If they maintain production at their capacity, then their inventory continues to build, converting cash into inventory. This can work for a little while but eventually you run out of cash, risking bankruptcy.  This is the problem they currently have.  The alternative is to stop production, but then you pay your workers to do nothing, so you still burn through cash but then have no product to show for it. This is very costly – in theory, inventory can eventually be converted into some revenue.  

Now consider the role of lean production in this mess. If you turn back time to one year ago, had GM been less lean, then they would have had less cash and more inventory.  Consequently, they would have had less of a buffer to weather the current storm, so their problems would have hit earlier or would have been more severe.  If they had been even leaner, then they would have had less inventory at that time and more cash, thereby giving them a bigger cushion to survive the downturn.  Based on this reasoning, their current problems are as bad as they are because they weren’t lean enough, not the other way around. 

It is possible to defend JIT in another way – if JIT were the problem, then we would expect the leanest of the auto manufacturers to be suffering the most.  Toyota and Honda are among the leanest, and they are suffering, but not by as much, which is again consistent with the notion that during this crisis, being lean is a help and not a hindrance. Maybe the better metaphor is the following.  Two people are thrown overboard a cruise ship and nobody notices, so they need to fend for themselves. They see an island in the distance and start to swim for safety.  Who is more likely to make it, the fit and lean person or the “master of the buffet” person?

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One Response to Is JIT dragging us down?

  1. What about this one?: the problem with obsolete stocks. Now a demand for low emission/low consumption cars is arising, what’s going to happen with those gas guzzlers?.

    In fact, JIT/lean is helping to reduce this problem. The biggest problem as you’ve pointed out is, probably they weren’t that lean as they thought; what about production lines?, what about design?.

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