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Opinion: Bill Walton, Is JIT to blame?

Demand and Supply in 2022
20220820 grain walton

What, we were wondering as we sat around the after-dinner table, was the catalyst that has changed our work ethic or attitudes towards work. Someone said Covid but they were quickly disabused of that by us citing examples of the change before we suffered through the Covid pandemic. Technology as the culprit gained support as the discussion grew. Then someone said JIT and Toyota.

There is no question that technology in armaments changed history as better weapons gave power to conquers. From the Bronze Age to the invention of gun powder; muskets to rifles to machine guns; catapult mortars to atomic bombs; hurled spears to guided missiles, and ramming triremes to nuclear submarines. The conquers imposed their ideals, from the Persians to the Greeks to the Romans to the Brits and now the Chinese, Russian and those dastardly American Republicans.

But in truth, no great world-wide events in the past ten years have caused the change we were discussing. Financial depressions, recessions, booms and busts may have had some historical affects but we could not attribute the change in ethics to these troublesome yet minor events. What caused so many of us to not show up for work, work less diligently, bounce from job to job, book off without notice, and seemingly care not a whit for the company or business that employed us.

Could it be social media and the internet, because that technology has been in existence for about the same time as the work ethic seems to have changed. While the new generation was learning how to use the new digital technology, were they missing the education in the life skills of responsibility, not only for their personal future sustainability, but for their social system that would support the lifestyle to which they felt they were entitled?

Perhaps it is that same entitlement that is behind the malaise. Social media, including television, radio, as well as digital information on hand-held devices, gives people a world-wide image of how some people live, mostly showing the lifestyle of the more affluent, and this creates illusions of what one feels should be theirs. What it does not show is the daily grind some people go through to create that image of what seems to be luxurious living.

However, back to JIT: Just-In-Time inventory management. In the 1970s Toyota realized they were tying up millions of dollars (yen) in inventory that sat in their warehouses until it was needed. They reasoned that if their suppliers could hold that inventory until Toyota needed it, that cost would be transferred to the supplier. What was needed was an inventory control system for both the manufacturer and the supplier: a system called Just-In-Time.

The shipping business soon adapted: trucks, trains, planes and ships all set up their own systems to meet the new Just-In-Time inventory/manufacturing/retailing approach to efficiency and costs saving. Then came Covid and JIT began to crumble. If anywhere in the supply chain workers struck for better wages, became ill, or government quarantined people because of Covid, the chain was broken and the ripple effect rolled through the economies around the world.

If Toyota did not have airbags because somewhere in the world talc supply stopped, Toyota could not finish manufacturing a car. The talc problem affected all the other just-in-time suppliers who now had product to ship but Toyota (for instance) could not use those parts. We have all heard about the lack or late delivery of computer chips needed in today’s automobiles.

Somewhere in the supply line, usually at the bottom, and earning a minimum wage, no matter the country of origin, is the lowly labourer. Unbeknownst to he or she back in the 1970s when JIT was growing in popularity, this bottom of the supply chain workers spelled success or failure for the new inventory management system being adopted by the movers and shakers at the top of the supply chain. Everything was hunky dory, even through mini recessions, wars, and trade embargoes: until those workers at the bottom began to realize, through social media, communications via cell phones, and the internet, just how important they were to the supply chain in the JIT system.

Realizing how important you are in the JIT system empowers those at the bottom of the supply chain to monetize (finally got to use that word) their labour even though the skill set is operating a No. 2 Jones shovel, disrupts the former company, by stopping or slowing production until you are replaced – and this ripples all the way up the supply chain.

I’m certain this is what happened when I asked for a new ‘sharps’ container and the drugstore clerk said there was a 3-month backlog – no plastic. We all know there is too much plastic in the world, but there must have been a rippling delay when a lowly-paid worker failed to report in the recycling sorting department due to an illness caused by a labour dispute over sick day entitlements for part-time workers.

This does not explain why my barbershop closed because of staffing problems, but then this is only a Just-About-Time to get the hairs trimmed, not critical – except I did wonder why the price of a haircut went up 28%. Barbers monetizing (again) their value to society, I suppose. The next thing we know the cost of food will be going up because if anything is JIT it’s perishable veggies, fruits, and dairy products. Who wants to shovel cow excrement for minimum wages? And unhappy cows give less milk, disrupting the supply chain for milk products, cheese, and ice cream.

Nothing was resolved by our after-dinner conversation. Has our work ethic been changed by the realization that we can affect the supply chain in this JIT world and thus improve our economic condition? Of course, if we all do this, we will end up in the same relative position – financially. Our improved income will be useless because the very things we wanted to buy will not be available to us – because of supply chain issues – and that darned JIT system.

Or maybe it is as simple as too many people clamoring for too few things. Adam Smith’s Supply and Demand theory back in 1776 explained this, although we should turn that phrase around: demand and supply. Just saying.

Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

retired from City of North Bay in 2000writer, poet, columnist
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