There I was hip-deep in packing boxes in the back room of my house — I call it my “pantry”—trying to figure something out. I had accumulated quite a lot of toilet paper and paper towels over the past year. It was in self-defense, really, after the traumatic shortages at the start of the pandemic. But now that life was at least closer to normal, did I really still need it all, cluttering up that space?
I found myself distracted by the voice of an economist on the radio, talking about why used cars are expensive right now:
“Used cars are quite pricey at the moment because they are scarce,” he said. “People are holding onto their old cars. That’s because there is a shortage of any new cars to buy. And that, in turn, is because there’s a shortage of silicon chips to put in them. And there’s a shortage of silicon chips for a number of reasons, including coronavirus and climate change.”
It reminded me of an old nursery rhyme:
For want of a nail the horseshoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a nail.
When I was little, all I cared about was the horse (which my mom assured me would be fine as soon as it got a new shoe). Now, however, I see the bigger picture: Life is just one big supply chain!
The economist continued: “On top of supply chain problems, the car makers probably did themselves no favors by using ‘just-in-time’ delivery.”
“Just-in-time delivery” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot for a corporate practice dictating that you don’t tie up your assets in inventory. If you need iron ore to make a car, for example, or plastic, or silicon chips for the fancy automatic-parallel-parking feature, your car company CEOs don’t want to waste money keeping a six-month supply of chips in their warehouse.
The smart thing is to let it all clutter up somebody else’s warehouse — let them pay for air conditioning and storage — until just before you need things yourself. Then you place your order, things are shipped, they arrive, and voilà — you’ve cut your costs.
There’s just one problem with all of this. What if your chips don’t actually arrive in time? What if there’s a snowstorm in Texas? A global pandemic? Or even just one container ship that gets stuck in, say, the Suez canal?
“We’ve calculated the odds to the last decimal place.”
“You worry too much.”
It strikes me as one giant game of musical chairs, played all across the world — except that the people playing it seemed to assume that the music would never stop.
How might this work in a hospital, I wondered? Sure, my surgeon can call out for a “Scalpel!” when he or she needs one, and have one placed — (handle first) — right into their hand, but that’s only because all the scalpels, and clamps, and whatever-else are all sterilized and ready ahead of time. Where would any of us be if that scalpel were still in transit, stuck in the elevator between floors, when it was needed?
What kind of idiot would start an operation without already having everything that was going to be needed?
A car maker, that’s who.
I really cannot fathom the thinking behind “just in time” operations. Even before the pandemic brought us that critical shortage of toilet paper, I was much more a believer in “just in case:”
— I need to keep several 12-packs of paper towels on hand, “just in case” there’s a snowstorm.
— I need enough soup cans to feed both boys, and all their friends, “just in case” they drop by with no notice.
— I need a lifetime supply of toilet paper “just in case”.
On the other hand, this “pantry” was so full of unused stuff, it was keeping me from using one entire room in my house.
The failures of the world’s supply chain had delivered me to an impasse where “just in time” collided with “just in case.”
Just then the radio began another story: about the shockingly high number of families in America who must depend on local charities for their daily bread.
Suddenly, the solution to my problem was clear. I kept some paper goods and my family’s favorite soups and loaded all the rest into my car because I had realized there was a location more important than any generic principle: namely, my local food bank, where neighbors helped neighbors in need.
Just in time for the holiday season.