Thursday, June 16, 2011

Living in a just in time world

Working as a management consultant, I became very interested in Japanese management approaches that were then very popular, a popularity due to the apparently continuing success of the Japanese industrial miracle.

Just in time was one of those approaches. This made perfect sense to me at the time. Why carry cash in stock if you can organise your supply chain to provide what you need when you need it?

What I really hadn't expected but perhaps should have, is the way the just in time ethos spread throughout society.

I am still a supporter of the Japanese just in time approach as I saw it, although I am now more conscious of the problems and risks involved in the process. However, the Japanese approach is not the same as that we apply today.

Proper analysis and planning were central to Japanese just in time. Nobody would bet the business on an instant decision. The process was controlled.

I would be the first to accept that the Japanese reality was always a little different from the theory. TEPCO's problems did not just arise. Still, today things are very different because not only do people expect just in time, but they also expect other people to take responsibility that should be theirs.

The client who believes that a simple email instruction to a lawyer will suffice and who resents the lawyer asking basic questions that the client should have covered is guilty of failure to control and even of bet the transaction decisions. The lawyer who simply accepts knowing that the client will have to pay fees later on because of failure to properly identify possible problems is just as guilty.

The manager who rushes out of the office and says do this now without thought is making the same mistake, as is the staff member who accepts. But who would blame the staff member when the power is so different?

Now I accept that I am now boringly old fashioned. But I know that other people share my concerns.
I wondered if readers could give me examples of this problem from their own experiences?


Still mulling over this one, one of the things that I have watching is the relationship between working styles and the new computing and communications technologies. There is now plenty of at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the technology does affect us.

I have the advantage of having worked in an earlier age as well as the current one. So in surmising about impacts, I can take my own experience as a base to generate hypothesis. Here I am also conscious that my own working efficiency and effectiveness has actually dropped notwithstanding a reasonable degree of knowledge as to the advantages of the technology. Now maybe I just don't have the drive I once had, but it's more than that.

In this type of writing, I am interested in the impact of changing process and the relationship between process and culture. I also find that I understand best if I have actual examples that I can generalise and then test.

So please help my thinking.


desipis said...

"Just in time" definitely describes the management culture I currently work in (it could also be described as "likely to be late" if one were less generous). Your example of a manager running out to give unthinking instructions is something that I encounter often.

There are downsides that appear to be caused by this approach. The biggest one is the increased stress on employees from exposure to the risk of failing to meet expectations. I've seen this manifest itself in a range of negative behaviours: increased conflict in the workplace and bullying tactics to shift the stress onto others; previously motivated employees becoming unmotivated and indifferent to outcomes; and disobedience and the undermining of management authority and processes.

Mostly, it seems to be managers following either management theory or an established management culture without understanding all the practical implications and corresponding mitigation strategies that might be needed in particular circumstances. An example of this was a decision not order parts at a point in time that were known to be needed because of an established practise to wait because "technology only gets cheaper", even though it was clear those parts would not be available later. That then lead to significant costs later on to deal with the acquisition of different parts.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting case study, despis.

The impact on morale of the approach is important. Some organisations do try to counter this through training. Employees are taught that they should ask questions, to clarify, before agreeing. That's fine, but it focuses on the wrong end of the problem.

I saw an interesting case study where it was explained to me that the rolling perfomance agreements were important as a protective device for staff because they actually gave staff a degree of protection from the instant and from failure. I blinked because this turned the purpose of those agreements on its head.

One of the problems as I see it is that manangers don't get as much experience as managers as used to be the case. It's a side effect of the thinning out of management and its replacement by an emphasis on process and technology.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I have very mixed memories of JIT going back to the late 60’s-early 70’s with a client of my then firm who was a supplier of radiator and brake rubber hoses to both Ford and GMH

This was a quite small (80-90 employee) company run by a guy who “knew rubber”, and at that time was responsible for ten or so different rubber hoses for various model of Holdens and Fords. He was not the sole supplier for the whole range; but was the sole supplier for particular models. (These items weren’t just short bits of straight hose; some of them had quite complex bends at very specific angles)

Quite frankly the result from his end of JIT was a nightmare. Not only was he required to maintain new model production of these things but also expected to provide short-notice odd runs supporting past models for both manufacturers.

And then his “shop” was unionised, and at times it was quite unclear as to who was actually running the business. Also, neither Ford nor GMH were noted for prompt payment, meaning this fellow who simply wanted to make rubber hoses (to very exacting, scientific standards with minimal tolerances) was hostage both to his two end users for payment, and to his highly specialised workforce which both knew, and exercised, their newfound negotiating powers.

JIT is a great theory, but that lovely fellow was basically destroyed by the practical ramifications in his particular area of expertise.


Jim Belshaw said...

That's a fascinating case study, KVD, in part because of the dates. The period you are referring too is early in the JIT cycle.

You actually illustrate a number of problems with JIT.

One is the relative power of purchaser and supplier. To my mind, effective application of JIT requires the stronger partner to exercise restraint. Otherwise, JIT becomes just another device for extracting blood.

A second problem is the obvious vulnerabilities created on both sides.

Legal Eagle said...

Personally I think the 6 minute billing regime in law firms produced a JIT approach which was disastrous. To give optimum advice you need time to plan and think, but clients get annoyed about being billed for that.

One of the things which really annoyed me about law firms too was a failure to manage deadlines. So a partner would sit on something all day, and just as you were about to leave, they'd tell you that something had suddenly become urgent - so you had to stay back, then it was a rushed job, and the probability of errors went up exponentially. Really unsatisfactory. :-( I didn't actually mind being a solicitor so much, but I really hated the way law firms worked.

Jim Belshaw said...

LE, I once wrote a post called clients are their own worst enemy on the last point in your first para. I am not opposed to time based recording, but when linked to performance systems it can have the type of effect you talk about. Clients become understandably suspicious.

We have talked about the failure to plan and delegate before. This is partly a matter of structure, culture & perosnality, but it is compounded by time pressure. No-one has time to think.