We need to explain Just-in-time NOW!
Folk are ill and need support – but we can’t get close to them. Caregivers are on the frontlines and need equipment to work – but we can’t get out of our homes. Shop and logistics workers are keeping us afloat – but we don’t know what we can do to help them. What can we do, confined as we are? We can grieve and think and discuss. I try not to panic more than twice a day – thinking that we’re all doomed and society as we know it is about to fail on a massive scale – and then return to think this crisis through in terms of horizon zero (today, supporting the ill and healthcare staff), horizon one (the next weeks in lockdown, supporting supply chain workers), horizon two (what happens at the end of quarantine?) and three (who will we be when we come out of this). The least we can do for people on the frontline we can’t help directly is think straight – they’re going to need us to create the right support structures and avoid devastating mistakes.
I’m told that what got us here is just-in-time supply chains: if only we’d had more inventories of masks, chemicals, etc. we would have been better off. Think it through. How can we keep inventories of everything without knowing what we need in advance. After the H1N1 epidemic, we were left with huge inventories of unused masks, which then went out of date or disappeared in the system – we’re uncovering some now. The essence of Just-in-time is discovering where the critical strain is and protecting key resources. Just-in-time leads to keeping access to key equipment capability, not inventories. We don’t have enough masks because we don’t know how to make masks anymore. We don’t have enough tests because the chemicals needed come from… China.
Let’s look at masks – small, simple things in themselves, nothing like respirators, but absolutely necessary for safe care (and feeling safer in general). First, we’re discovering forgotten inventories everywhere (just ask administrations or the military)… both usable and out of date masks. Second, having found them, no one knows where to send them in priority, so more sitting around while smart people make intelligent triage decisions. Thirdly, the reason we’re lacking so much vital material is that it’s all being procured from China – which, as you can imagine, is largely holding to its own produce right now. Just-in-time thinking has you locate critical components in a 100 miles radius, not halfway around the world.
Now, I worry. The next step I see coming, particularly in large companies, is the brass realizing that it’s can’t be good to stop production sites for lack of material or willing workers. So they’ll ask Purchasing to do something about it and Purchasing will do what it does – which is try to order as much as can be found on the market at the best price. Thus making the supply problem worse by fueling the Forrester bullwhip effect.
Let’s take a deep breath and a step back.
The point of lockdown is “flattening the curve.”
Flattening the curve doesn’t mean less contagion – it means slower contagion. The theory is that we can thus reduce the pressure on Emergency Rooms. That works for horizon 1 – this week and next week, hence the quarantine. This is great because better care will mean, hopefully, fewer victims. But if we follow this thinking through it also means that we’re pushing forward in time the infection curve. It will last longer. We need to look at horizon 2.
The problem we’re facing goes well beyond conjuring hoards of masks, sanitizing gel, chemicals for test kits, respirators, etc., and routing them to where they’re the most needed. We need to see that we’re going to need a steady flow of these products for the foreseeable future. We need to structure those supply chains. We need the production capability – and then capacity.
The best way to do so is Just-in-time. All the horror stories of people hoarding stuff, then not knowing what to do with it while others desperately need it but go without is a feature of human behavior. No surprise there. We have experience from previous crises and battlefields all over the world. Reconstituting inventories leads to only one thing: SNAFU – situation normal, all fouled up. Shipping the wrong stuff at the wrong time to the wrong people.
A Just-in-time pull system is about structuring the logistics of the material – the route – and then frequent delivery where and when it’s needed. It means having production facilities closer to point-of-use. It means flexible equipment that can adapt to real demand.
I can understand a ten year-old blaming Just-in-time for our predicament. After all, it is true that if we had more inventories of, well, just about everything, we wouldn’t run out of material so fast. But that’s also exactly the point – this is new and unprecedented. We don’t know what we’re going to need, in what quantities, where and when. Having lots of the wrong stuff at the wrong location doesn’t help much. The countries best holding the current pandemic, like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore are those 1/ favorable and experienced with Just-in-time, not against it and 2/ with existing practice of wearing masks when ill to protect one’s neighbors.
I can’t begin to envision what horizon 3 will be like, after we cope and recover. But what is very clear is that we’ll be living with episodic returns of the coronavirus, and will have to learn to deal with it as Asian countries have done with SARS – Taiwan, China and South Korea were badly hit by COVID19, but also obviously much better prepared. This starts with understanding the logistics of the problems, rather than just locking up everyone in their own house and hope things will magically get better. They won’t.
I had the good fortune and privilege of learning with Chick Perrow, the author of normal accidents, who recently passed away. In tightly coupled systems, accidents will happen. When three random failures converge, humans lose track of the system and make the wrong call. Rules and systems made to automate and normalize the daily operation of complex systems make them rigid and inflexible and therefore make it even harder to correct quickly and flexibly. Supply chains are coupled complex systems, and accidents cascade then catastrophe – this is what we will be experiencing in the coming weeks.
The time for Just-in-time is now. We need to educate more. We need to explain to politicians and business leaders that supply chain are living, complex creatures that need care and forethought. We need to teach more broadly the principles of just-in-time, of the quick response systems that go with it and the attitude of respect-for-people that sustains it all.
I don’t know how we get from here to there. Any history of medical discoveries shows that society has a poor record of adopting quickly new solutions, but that it does so in the end. Just-in-time is a proven, time-tested logistical system that performs better than anything else both in everyday conditions and in crisis times, such as factory fires, tsunamis or inundations. How long it takes us to understand and adopt Just-in-time logic to respond faster to epidemics and avoid ruinous lockdowns – is up to us.