The Origins of Just-In-Time

A couple weeks ago, the students in my ISAT 654 (Advanced Technology Management) class at JMU asked about where and when Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing actually started in the United States. Although I still can’t identify the FIRST company to adopt this approach, I was also curious about how the adoption of JIT in the US grew from the Toyota Production System (TPS).

Just-in-Time (JIT) is only one element of lean manufacturing, which is a broader philosophy that seeks to eliminate all kinds of waste in a process.  Although JIT is often considered an enterprise-wide philosophy of continuous improvement, I’d like to focus on the mechanistic aspects of JIT – that is, the development and operations of a production system that employs continuous flow and preventive maintenance. In an effectively implemented JIT production system, there is little or no inventory – which includes Work-In-Process (WIP) – and production is tightly coupled to demand.

The origin of JIT can be traced back to Henry Ford’s production line, in which he was keenly aware of the burdens of inventory. However, Ford’s production system generated large volumes of identical products created in large batches – there was no room for variety, and the system was not coupled to demand levels.

In post-war Japan, Taiichi Ohno (“Father of JIT”) adapted the system at Toyota to handle smaller batch sizes and more variety in the parts that could be used to construct assemblies. In 1952, work on their JIT system was initiated, with full deployment of the kanban pull system by 1962. This was the genesis of the Toyota Production System, an elegant (and sometimes elusive) socio-technical system for production and operations. This approach bridged the gaps between production and continuous improvement and became the basis for lean manufacturing as it is known today.

After the oil crisis in 1973, other Japanese companies started to take note of the success of Toyotaand the approach became more widely adopted. The JIT technique spread to the United States in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, but due to inconsistencies in implementation and a less mature grasp on the human and cultural elements of the Toyota Production System, western companies experienced limited success. The Machine that Changed the World by James Womack made the JIT+TPS concept more accessible to US companies in 1990, which led to the widespread adoption of lean manufacturing techniques and philosophies thereafter.

JIT is very sensitive to the external environment in which it is implemented. For a review of Polito & Watson’s excellent 2006 article that describes the key barriers to smooth JIT, read Shocks to the System: Financial Meltdown and a Fragile Supply Chain.

(P.S. Why the picture of butter? Because JIT, when implemented appropriately, is perfectly smooth and slippery and thus passes The Butter Test.)


  • Nicole,
    Nicole, JIT is often identified as a Japanese concept, but as you point out, Henry Ford may have been the originator. I am puzzled that I often see JIT seemingly identified as a separate system from Lean. It appears to me that JIT is an integral part of Lean, and does not stand alone. That is, all of the other elements of Lean support a JIT environment, and enhance the probability of success. A JIT focus without a Lean approach is likely to either fail outright, or simple result in a transfer of the cost and burden of inventory from the customer to the supplier, with no real improvement.
    I was looking for verification of my understanding. When I googled JIT, I was pleased to see your name come up near the top of the results.

    • That’s awesome, Bill! Not only that my post came up on your search, but also that others are sensitized to the whole “yeah JIT can be good, but not when you’re incurring all of that transportation muda that’s so common in modern day product delivery architectures.” 🙂

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  • 40 years shipping/receiving experience. “just too late” The ol’ weak link truly fits. A good two bin kanban system is easy, provided suppliers can produce, or have their own kanban. Inventory became a bad thing because accountants run the business. They don’t have to tell the customers we don’t have the parts. Very difficult to run any custom products in that system, or change to meet customers’ needs.

  • Jean-Francois Rivard

    You did not mention Peter Drucker? The Japanese were first to implement the Just in time idea. But Drucker and his contemporaries did a lot of work on the frameworks of Just in time in the 50’s 60’s. You can look at Drucker’s 1960’s paper “Physical Distribution” or LeKashman and Stolle 1965 “Total Cost” article. Long, long before Toyota. It was one more example of the Japanese seeing a good idea (As opposed to inventing it) and implementing it.

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