I normally love the public radio program “Marketplace” and have listened to it (on radio or as a podcast) for 15 years or so.
Yes, many factories have been shut down in China, which disrupts global supply chains. However, if you're a company that decided to move all of your production to China (to then ship out to customers around the world), that wasn't a “Lean” strategy.
It's really difficult to support “just in time” delivery over such long distances. If it were a “Lean” approach to move all of your production to China, then Toyota would have done that. But, Toyota didn't.
Toyota has increasingly built assembly capacity around the world to be CLOSER to their customers.
When Toyota built a factory in Texas (to build pick up trucks… close to a large number of customers), they didn't have suppliers in Texas. So, to support “just in time,” Toyota has many suppliers right on site there in San Antonio. If we're copying or emulating Toyota, we'd do things like that instead of shipping production off to China.
But Marketplace gets their headline wrong. It should read something like:
China offshoring manufacturing model challenged by COVID-19
The article also unfairly piles on:
“At issue here is a global manufacturing model that focuses on low costs and lean inventory at every step in the chain, a model where all the parts arrive at the plant just in time.“
“Lean” inventory levels require frequent deliveries from nearby suppliers. Again, not shipments from halfway around the world.
“The just-in-time model comes from Toyota, which in the '70s started having car parts arrive at the plant at the moment of assembly.”
But again, the problems that Marketplace is reporting on are NOT driven by a Toyota model. The problems are driven by a lowest-piece-price strategy that leads to LONG distances. That's not JIT.
An economist said:
“Purchasing managers are intensely measured on how low their costs are. So that doesn't leave a lot of room to spend extra money because there might be some contingency in which everything falls apart,” Helper said.”
You can't blame purchasing managers. They are part of a system and it's a systemic problem if senior executive policies are driving them to make decisions that don't take risks into account. Going for the lowest piece price, no matter what, seems like a suboptimizing and short-term-focused strategy.
Remember Point #1 of “The Toyota Way“:
“Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.“
Consolidating all production in a single plant, in any country, introduces all sorts of risks, ranging from the geopolitical to things like tornadoes and earthquakes. And, if you want to hold a lot of inventory in an attempt to buffer against said risk, there's also a risk that the warehouse full of parts gets hit by a natural disaster as well.
The economist again says:
“This time around, she thinks the pain of overreliance on Chinese suppliers could speed up change to make supply chains more visible and bring back some redundancies and slack that the just-in-time model shaved away a generation ago.”
The pain being felt now is NOT the fault of just-in-time — the cause is more accurately described as “overreliance on Chinese suppliers.”
If you're going to blame “just-in-time,” it again might be more accurate to blame the misguided combination of attempted JIT with an overreliance on a single supplier that's half a world away.
Will companies learn from that? Or will they learn that JIT is bad and they should have more “slack” (meaning inventory) in the future???