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JIT RIP?

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Here’s a disturbing news item from The Wall Street Journal: “A report from the Trust for America’s Health, a public health advocacy group in Washington, concluded that 40 percent of the states lack enough backup medical supplies to cope with a pandemic flu or other major disease outbreak.

Um, wait a minute, you say. That’s hardly news — after all, we’re living the minute-by-minute reality of a pandemic, and we can see first-hand its impact on our daily lives and on the supply chains we all depend on.

Thing is, that news item was printed way back in 2006, and it concerned a shortage of vital supplies (face masks!) that medical professionals desperately needed to respond to SARS. (Remember that outbreak?)

One could conclude that it’s another example of us clever humans not learning from our mistakes and failing to plan for future disruptions. Fair enough.

But in a recent column that cited that nugget from the WSJ, Cathy Morrow Roberson, founder and president of Logistics Trends & Insights LLC, proposes that the current crisis (like its cousin from 14 years ago) actually underscores something much more fundamental about the modern supply chain.

Or as the headline to her blog puts it: “Coronavirus may mean the end of just-in-time, as we know it.” That’s right: It is finally time to reevaluate this cornerstone of lean manufacturing that businesses, from Amazon all the way to much, much smaller organizations, have embraced for decades. After all, lives are at stake.

“Over the years, many of us have lauded the benefits of just-in-time practices, primarily to lower carrying inventory costs,” Morrow Roberson says. “But today, the practice no longer works.”

Morrow Roberson doesn’t suggest we chuck JIT altogether. But, playing the part of a modern-day Cassandra, she makes the case that it sure seems like it’s time to look at other options, including diversifying the supply chain.

“I’m not suggesting we completely end it,” she writes. “Instead, we should use it in a wiser manner. For example, one lesson learned from the [2011 Japanese] tsunami and earthquake was the establishment of some Japanese automotive manufacturing locations closer to customers, particularly here in North America.”

Now it’s time to see whether — unlike with the mythical Cassandra — Morrow Roberson’s words are actually heeded.


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