In the story of how the modern world was constructed, Toyota stands out as the mastermind of a monumental advance in industrial efficiency. The Japanese automaker pioneered so-called Just In Time manufacturing, in which parts are delivered to factories right as they are required, minimizing the need to stockpile them.

Over the last half-century, this approach has captivated global business in industries far beyond autos. From fashion to food processing to pharmaceuticals, companies have embraced Just In Time to stay nimble, allowing them to adapt to changing market demands, while cutting costs.

But the tumultuous events of the past year have challenged the merits of paring inventories, while reinvigorating concerns that some industries have gone too far, leaving them vulnerable to disruption. As the pandemic has hampered factory operations and sown chaos in global shipping, many economies around the world have been bedeviled by shortages of a vast range of goods — from electronics to lumber to clothing.

In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late.

“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”

Read More: Global trade rebounds in Q1 of 2021 on Asian exports, pandemic demand
The most prominent manifestation of too much reliance on Just In Time is found in the very industry that invented it: Automakers have been crippled by a shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.

But the breadth and persistence of the shortages reveal the extent to which the Just In Time idea has come to dominate commercial life. This helps explain why Nike and other apparel brands struggle to stock retail outlets with their wares. It’s one of the reasons construction companies are having trouble purchasing paints and sealants. It was a principal contributor to the tragic shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, which left frontline medical workers without adequate gear.

Just In Time has amounted to no less than a revolution in the business world. By keeping inventories thin, major retailers have been able to use more of their space to display a wider array of goods. Just In Time has enabled manufacturers to customize their wares. And lean production has significantly cut costs while allowing companies to pivot quickly to new products.

These virtues have added value to companies, spurred innovation and promoted trade, ensuring that Just In Time will retain its force long after the current crisis abates. The approach has also enriched shareholders by generating savings that companies have distributed in the form of dividends and share buybacks.

Still, the shortages raise questions about whether some companies have been too aggressive in harvesting savings by slashing inventory, leaving them unprepared for whatever trouble inevitably emerges.

“It’s the investments that they don’t make,” said William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts.

Intel, the American chip-maker, has outlined plans to spend $20 billion to erect new plants in Arizona. But that is less than the $26 billion that Intel spent on share buybacks in 2018 and 2019 — money the company could have used to expand capacity, Mr. Lazonick said.

Some experts assume that the crisis will change the way companies operate, prompting some to stockpile more inventory and forge relationships with extra suppliers as a hedge against problems. But others are dubious, assuming that — same as after past crises — the pursuit of cost savings will again trump other considerations.

Leave a Reply