Just-In-Time Production, Hurricanes, and Road Ice

“Wait, let me guess. You want me to fly the Maru into the teeth of what amounts to an interstellar hurricane just so that I can shut down yet another Seamus Harper science experiment thereby saving all of our butts from certain doom?” – Andromeda

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So, here’s “Just in Time” food inventory . . .

Since the first industrial revolution, businesses have been on a relentless drive to create additional efficiency.  This has resulted in a lot of wealth creation since the “stuff” that we consume becomes cheaper.

How does it become cheaper?

Over time, production processes have been automated.  To give an example, it takes less than three equivalent people working less than a day to turn 1800 parts into a car.  Sure, the parts were produced elsewhere, so more days were taken than that – but to me it’s astonishing – less than 24 hours of labor to produce a vehicle.

Part of the reason for the efficiency is that so much of the process has been automated.  Hundreds of robots are on the factory floor, which allows the car to be built with so few hours.  Imagine if the same level of productivity went into the construction of a house . . . .

Focus is spent on elimination of waste at every part of the process – it’s that destruction of waste that allows industry to focus on production.

One (relatively) recent initiative to reduce waste is to create “just in time” production.  It’s been a driving force since Toyota popularized it in the 1970’s in factories (and in business) across the world.  The way this concept works is beautiful in its simplicity.  Let’s say you’re producing 1000 cars a day.  And you want to put steering wheels on those cars (I know, a crazy luxury).  That means that you want to have enough steering wheels to build the cars you’re building today.  Which also means you have to have the right steering wheels (not one that turns only right, but the correct steering wheel that goes with the car) since one model of the car might not take the same steering wheel as another.

So, of the 1800 parts that make up a car, you have to deal with a MILLION of them each day.  And not every car is the same – there are different carpets, stereos, seats and any number of variations for each car.

So, do you keep a 60 days’ worth of inventory?  No.

In fact, in your best possible world, the company that manufactures the steering wheel that you need shows up and puts it in your hand right as you’re ready to install it into the car.  In practice, that doesn’t happen exactly like that, but it’s close.  The company that manufactures the seats, for instance, knows which ones you want on Tuesday.  It delivers them to the line in the order required for your production run.  Your effective inventory of seats is zero – you let the seat supplier deal with the hassle of getting the seats ready and in place for when you need them.

Likewise, the seat manufacturer doesn’t want a month’s inventory of foam in the place, so they order it to arrive . . . just in time.

The genius of this idea is that you can reduce inventory across every manufacturing system . . . everywhere.  You eliminate bins and shelves and racks of stuff and all of the difficulty in counting it and keeping things dry that should be dry, while not forgetting you have 75 tons of leather for seats in the back corner where the lights are out.

Great idea, right?

Well, it is.  Until something goes wrong.  It is the manufacturing equivalent of going bumper to bumper at 80 miles per hour.  That space between cars is like inventory – it gives you time if someone makes a mistake to correct before catastrophic damage occurs.  So, if a seat isn’t there, I’m sure it’s painful to pull the car off the line, but you can make do.  If all the seats aren’t there?  The factory will have to shut down fairly soon – you’ll just have piles of seatless cars, which are only popular in Southern California.  “Just in Time” makes the factory more efficient, but also less resilient, more prone to catastrophe brought about by the simplest shortage.

But in real life . . . where else are we using just in time philosophy?

Gas stations.  There’s about 28 gallons of gasoline for each person in the US.  My family uses that much in a few days (three cars).  But if production went down for whatever reason?  The US would run out of gasoline in short order.  See, it’s all fun and games when we’re just talking about steering wheels . . . .

Food stores.  The average food store turns over their entire inventory . . . 19 times a year.  Oddly, that’s nearly the square root of 365, so the average inventory turnover is  . . . 19 days.  But that includes things that don’t move as fast, such as sponges and nosehair trimmers.  You can imagine food, especially perishables like meat, frozen foods and vegetables are probably at a week or, more likely, less.  And if there’s an emergency?  The inventory is measured in hours.

We were in Houston prior to Hurricane Ike hitting.  I was out of town on business, but got back in time to ride the storm out (no, not with REO Speedwagon) with the Wilder family.

Oddly, we were completely prepared.  We had food for weeks, a gas grill, canned goods, matches, candles, wine, cigars and pantyhose and chocolates for trading.  Oh, and fifty gallons of drinking water.

I went by the local Target® store that night and found . . . everything gone.  The place was picked clean, even the wine.  I think people went into a frenzy and bought extra hairbrushes because . . . hurricane hair?  You can read about the Wilder experience in Hurricane Ike in more detail here (LINK).

Why did I go to Target™?  Really, just for grins.  It’s a nice feeling knowing that you and your family are protected.  That night as the storm set in, we lost power early on.  So we sat, drinking wine, smoking cigars (yes, The Mrs. joined me) while we roasted hot dogs over the candle (not recommended) and watched John Adams (the HBO® miniseries) on a laptop until the battery died.

The next day?  Power out, so time to eat the steaks. Mmm.

The next day?  Pretty hot.  Oppressively Houston hot.  This wasn’t good, but I got my hands on a battery operated fan, which was worth approximately a million dollars.  I noticed people were selling ice for $8 a bag on the roadway.  Was I mad at them?  Heck no!  If you really needed ice, you could get it from these people, and nowhere else since the every store was still closed.  These people were doing humanitarian work.

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Road ice.  Ain’t capitalism grand?

We were ready – we were practicing the opposite of “Just in Time” – we have stuff around our house all the time so that little interruptions won’t ruin our lives.  But a reasonable question to ask yourself is . . . how ready are you when the car in front of you taps on its brakes and you’re going 90 miles per hour?

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.