JIT – Just-in-Time or Just-in-Trouble?

The importance of managing risk through the supply chain has become painfully evident as a result of natural disasters which have occurred in recent months and years. Despite the obvious human cost and tragedy that ensued, catastrophes caused by the earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, factory explosions and volcanic eruptions have all impacted enterprises who source globally, and who have embraced Lean/JIT practices at least to some degree.

The supply chain effects of these catastrophes have lead to a JIT rethink, but it is clear that many companies have failed to put in place back-up plans to cope with emergencies like the Japanese catastrophe. They were content to place all their eggs in one basket like Japan or China owing to low production costs while ignoring the obvious risks of natural disasters. But even where companies had a disaster-recovery plan in place, room for maneuver depends largely on the nature of the industry.

The production philosophy born on the factory floors of Japanese car companies is a global management practice and has saved companies billions of dollars. The idea behind JIT, or lean manufacturing, is to have the supplies a firm needs at the exact moment that they are needed. Most of the companies, with production systems based on just-in-time inventory management, understand keeping minimum inventory has its risks.

The problem for many global corporations is that they are mesmerized by cheap production costs in disaster-prone countries. They know the natural disaster risks but feel that their infrequent occurrences on a major scale justify the risks. Nature is not the only threat to the supply chain; there are also significant political risks to be considered in many politically unstable countries.

The rising production costs in China will favor a shift of production back to countries concerned to have a more secure source of supply unaffected by natural disasters. There are, however, other reasons favoring a production shift back to regions close to their markets, like flexibility to react to market changes more responsively.

There are number of avenues open to risk mitigation strategies to deal with large scale disruptions of supply chains, including:

–        Challenge suppliers to develop disaster plans so that they can make provisions to move to alternate sites for production, in the event that they are unable to produce product at their main plant.

–        Eliminate sole-source suppliers, and developing the capabilities of additional companies. Having one supplier is probably too few, but having five suppliers is too many in terms of achieving economies of scale.

–        Analyze where suppliers are located, and limiting the number of critical component suppliers that are geographically situated in a risky area.

–        Review insurance policies and consider taking-out contingent business interruption insurance that protects against losses relating to the inability of suppliers to deliver.

Experts have been recommending for years that manufacturers diversify their supply base. After all, recent history is full of examples of widespread supply chain disruptions and their consequences for manufacturers reliant on too few sources, such examples are: attacks to WTC and Hurricane Katrina in USA, flooding in Thailand, factory explosions in Germany, volcanic ash from Iceland and earthquake and tsunami in Japan.


Japanese Earthquake-Tsunami Show Flaws In Just-In-Time


Reducing Risk in The Automotive Supply Chain


Japan’s earthquake must force JIT supply changes


Auto companies relook at just-in-time mantra


 Japan One Year Later: What Did Supply Chain Practitioners Learn from the Tsunami?


Inventory Management: The New Approach

After researching inventory management more extensively, I came across an article that was based on a Q&A session with senior director, Meeta Kratz, at Grainger, an industrial supply company. Meeta says that she has noticed that more and more manufacturers are switching to “just in time” inventory to reduce extra costs associated with holding excess inventory. She says that this is an important shift because companies are now learning that switching to “just in time” inventory is allowing them to be more efficient with their inventory management systems and taking excess costs out completely out improving their profit.

While I understand the approach that “just in time” inventory helps to reduce costs associated with excess inventory if a company were to have good data to make good forecasts this problem would exist. The problem with “just in time” inventory is the need for a strong supply chain to make sure that you will receive the products just in time but on time. Failure to have strong suppliers will make a company’s customers unhappy due to their shortage or late shipments due to the original suppliers. This problem would be eliminated by taking the time to analyze the previous data and make accurate forecasts for future orders. Relying on “just in time” inventory, while can be effective” is risky if a company’s supply chain is weak and has no experience dealing with this kind of inventory system before.
When asked about the elements of a good inventory management system, Meeta responded, “Customer-centric, Based on actual usage data, Flexible, Supported by Experts.” These key elements simply cannot be achieved effectively with “just in time” inventory. If you want to be customer-centric you must be able to be flexible with your customers needs. Different customers may have different needs. The fact that actual usage data should be used in a good inventory management system shows that forecasting is essential to good inventory management. If you use data appropriately you can make sure you have enough products in stock at any time without extreme costs.

While I understand that some companies, such as Dell, have great success using “just in time” inventory I still believe that switching to this type of inventory puts a company at risk for not being able to supply their customers with the products they need and risk having shortages and losing customers. Looking at element four, “supported by experts,” this proves that if you have experts looking at your data and double checking forecasts then having “just in time” inventory is less effective and riskier than having a regular inventory replenished frequently.

Do you guys think “just in time” inventory is a good system to move to, just to reduce costs? What are the risks associated with it?