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The Sanity of Just-in-Time

by Michael Ballé, Jacques Chaize & Dan Jones
May 8, 2020

The Sanity of Just-in-Time

by Michael Ballé, Jacques Chaize & Dan Jones
May 8, 2020 | Comments (3)

If they haven’t trained themselves to do so, even the most brilliant people can make absurdly wrong decisions because they lack “frame control”. In the early days of the epidemic, experts in epidemiology underestimated the scope of the problem by at least a factor of 10, sometimes 100-fold. Governments around the world shut down their entire countries to protect intensive care units in hospitals. As the dust clears, we will realize that in the heat of the moment, in some countries, we forgot everything we knew about epidemics, such as spotting outbreaks early through testing, isolating contagion hotbeds, and improving sanitation.

A frame is the mental equivalent of a picture frame – the rectangle through which you look at the situation. If you’re only seeing overflowing intensive care units, it makes sense to lock down the country. If you have some frame awareness and realize that you are being obsessed with what you can control, and not with the broader problem; you might instead ask yourself: how do I support overwhelmed intensive care units without shutting down the entire country?

In our early work on mental models, we established a theory about a ladder of reflection. Mental models can be:

  1. Level 1: A stereotype
  2. Level 2: A rule, such as “heavy rain causes flooding”
  3. Level 3: A conditional rule, such as “In terrain where the soil can’t absorb water, heavy rains cause local flooding”
  4. Level 4: Ad hoc reasoning: “This specific flood was caused by a combination of factors, such as terrain that can’t absorb water, coupled with sudden rain and waves from the ocean during the storm surge”

Reasoning starts with a spontaneous stereotype (you can’t help your brain popping those into your mind), recognizing that it’s wrong; and then working up the levels of reason towards an ad hoc causal chain: this is an exercise in awareness. The difficulty in doing so lies in the emotional blockages that get you stuck with one idea – something you can control. Panics and crises are so emotionally charged that we get easily overwhelmed and irrationally attached to the wrong solutions.

To move up the ladder of reasoning, we must teach ourselves to be problem finders, not solution givers. This is a radical mindset shift. As Nobel-Prize recipient Herbert Simon saw half a century ago, real-life problems rarely have one obvious solution. They are closer to the following structure:

Source: Visual Abstraction in Analogical Problem Solving

The king wants to conquer the fortress, but there are many roads leading to it. Each road is mined, but to get supplies in, a small team can get through were a full body of men will trigger an explosion. On the other hand, any small party of attackers will easily be picked off by the defenders.

In any new problem, such as the coronavirus pandemic, no solution is the only one. All avenues work, but they are all, to some extent,fraught with difficulties. The fortress will fall if the attacking king coordinates small troops on all roads simultaneously and one wall eventually fails. This is how real-life problems get solved. By discovering and attacking all avenues, one stumbles upon the weakest constraint that can change the situation, and eventually cracks the problem.

Frame control means suspending your attachments, and releasing your brain from its obsession with a generic single solution. The broader Covid-19 problem was never masks/no masks – but from the start, what masks are where, and how do we procure them?

Decision-makers are bad at frame control precisely because they think their job is to make decisions early and quickly. Thus they instinctively follow the process of:

  1. Defining the situation: We might need masks but we don’t have enough on hand.
  2. Deciding on one option: Masks can’t be our priority right now, we’re going to have to forcefully keep people away from each other.
  3. Driving the solution through: Okay everyone, masks (or tests) are not the answer. The solution is to stay home.
  4. Dealing with the unexpected consequences: Now that we’ve done that, and havemany people living in areas without any visible contagion;and need to restart businesses;we will need to do that while explaining we were right all along.

This “take charge”approach is instinctive, feels good when you’ve got the reins (ha, look at me, I’m doing something), and is, often, ultimately catastrophic. Data comes in late, in the “drive” phase where you are already committed to a course of action and can’t backpedal. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, this is also the path to bad mistakes and making things worse.

To develop better frame control, we can train ourselves to an alternative way of reasoning. The lean thinking thought process goes:

  1. Find the problem: Look at the facts, talk to the people and keep discussing the issue until some agreement arises as to the true problems. Then, continue to keep that discussion open when new data arrives. In this case, how does Covid-19 really behave?
  2. Face the problem: Acknowledge to yourself the part of the problem you don’t know how to solve, rather then rushing to “solve” the aspects where you can jump to a blanket solution.
  3. Frame the problem: Spelling out the frame through which you look at the problem. In this case: slowing down the rate of infection of healthy people, slowing down the rate at which infected people get badly ill, and increasing hospital capacity to support a greater influx of respiratory critical care patients – without shutting down everything.
  4. Form solutions: Share the frame with everyone to build on local initiatives through inspiration and improvement. Encourage every hospital and every town to come up with its own plan to respond to the challenge and organize the communication structure that enables constant sharing of what works or not as new data comes in that clarifies find. Build solutions as we go, understanding progressively what can stay the same and what will need to change.Provide support and resources to local organizations when needed.

This lean way of thinking is less spontaneous; and it is both more effective (leading to less costly mistakes due to early misconceptions), and more resilient, because people get involved in building solutions as opposed to have them imposed on them from on high. These solutions are also more effective because they vary according to local conditions, which enables local learning curves to learn how to deal with the problem everywhere, not just centrally.

Figure 1: from "The Lean Strategy," Ballé, Jones, Chaize and Fiume, McGrawHill, 2018

Just-In-Time as a Real Time Reality Check

Just-in-time logistics is a key element of the “Find” phase of lean thinking. What we have seen in recent weeks is a series of supply chain failures and resulting panic. In hospitals, first not enough masks and not enough tests (which turned hospitals into hotbeds of contagion as staff got sick and people going in and out caught the virus and spread it); then not enough respirators, then not enough gowns; now we’re short on anesthetic drugs, and so on.

These shortages did not occur because stocks were too low. The shortages happened because we could not set up the requisite supply chains right away. Just-in-time thinking doesn’t force you to prioritize what you source now, but rather, which customers you serve while you build extra capacity. For masks, for instance, this means nurses and doctors first, then all caregivers, then the population at large.  Thinking that way gets you working on increasing the capacity of the supply chain on day one, rather than remain stunned, like a deer in the headlights, wondering which way you should jump (i.e. which single solution will solve the entire problem, seeing that the obvious ones are out of immediate reach).

Just-in-time thinking and practice is a real-time sanity check, as opposed to what you believe is happening. It’s the reality of the situation – where supply is weak and threatened – and thus prompts us to quick action at the right place.

We still don’t know what we don’t know regarding this crisis. And committing early to blanket solutions is the worst thing we can do in a crisis. Doing so means that not only are we going to hammer the wrong nail, but at the same time we’re going to take way too long (having committed publicly to hammering the wrong nail) to discover the right focus for action. Just-in-time thinking keeps your mind open and flexible because the system itself tells you where the problem is, so that you can find out more about it as you work on solutions, balancing discovery and delivery as you go.

Figure 2: from "The Lean Sensei" Ballé, Chartier, et al., LEI, 2019

Path dependence is the worst enemy of smart resolution. Once committed to the wrong course of action – as new facts come to light – it’s harder to look up, rethink and change course, which is how every leadership disaster happens. Path dependence is also human and unavoidable, which is why we need to train ourselves to frame control with enabling tools such as just-in-time to respect people on the frontline and respect the facts they share about what is happening to them.

Mastering the path as opposed to being led by it, means looking up frequently to reevaluate both destination and way as new information comes to light. This can be a symbiotic, dynamic process involving all people. But to do so we must be free of our frames in order to control them.

If we seek the best outcomes for everyone (or the least worst), we must teach ourselves the discipline of being aware of the glasses through which we see the world and thoughtful about what they show us by digging deeper into causes, establishing consensus on problems and coordinating collective remedies.

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3 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani May 09, 2020

Likewise, the frame through which Lean has long been seen is that of success. Attachment to that has disabled releasing the brain from its obsession with success to explore a wide range of important problems.

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Jan DS May 11, 2020
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This article is written with a US covid situation in mind. As a Belgian citizen I can say that the government quickly identified the weakness of the ambiguous virus and the weakness of our healthcare system. Expert tasksforce was setup quickly and a limitations on person-to-person contact setup. Priority of PDP was given immediately to first line support. They adjust decisions on a day-to-day basis.  The weakness of the supply chain network for masks and respirators was due to the denial of a unlikely but highly impactful pandemic risk and the need for strategic reserves and equipment - on a global scale - .  South-Korea came out better because they already got a practice run with MERS and SARS. Unlike the EU they did not accept the remaining risk and developped an emergency plan as part of their interior affairs policy.

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Marty Anderson June 03, 2020
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Very interesting article

There is also another dimension to this thought process:

What is the baseline social structure of the network that must, or will, respond to a threat?

All organizations, large and small, blend two generic forms of networks.  They have many formal names, but "command" and "emergent" will work for shorthand.

"Command" networks are those in which there are fixed lines of reporting or connection between a finite number of "nodes" (people). Military style management structures are the easiest examples to visualize this.  Also paved roads.  Old fashioned "circuit-switched" phone lines.  Etc.

Emergent networks have almost no central command hierarchies.  They are 'scale free' in that they can move from a single bit of encapsulated RNA code (CV19) to a global pandemic in weeks, with no 'strategy' or 'central permission' management. Ants.

ALL human networks BLEND both command and emergent network forms.

GM had/has a higher RATIO of command which is why it has been shrinking for decades.

Toyota/Honda/Google/etc have very low ratios of command networks in their total system, so they have been adapting and/or growing faster/better than 'high-command" networks. JIT.

Here is a network reality most folks have not analyzed, or dismiss as "political bias" - that directly relates to the topic of this article.

Starting about 40 years ago the 3-level Fed/State/Local levels of US government got bonded as one hierarchy via "matching funds".

Local school systems had to send local property taxes UP to Washgington DC to "match" the "healthy foods" program that sent green beans to the local town school.

This meant that ALL tax money in the US gradually formed a GM style hierarchy - de facto.

This is not a right-wing conspiracy theory, it is a mathematical property of the US govt network.

US hierarchy was once a 9-cell matrix.

A. Fed/State/Local vertical dimension.

 B.Executive/Congressional/Legislative 'horizontal" dimension.

That meant there were NINE cells of the "command" structure that checked and balanced each other.  (Similar to how local JIT and bottom up lean networks constantly re-balance Toyota/Honda/Google etc)

With "matching funds" the Fed/State/Local cells went away.

Which is why a "best practice" central health care CV19 strategy can be deployed by the Feds instantly.

If towns and states did not follow the Federal 'evidence-based' COVID quarantine "recommendation", they could be denied Fed health care funds....and many other funds like public works, police etc

If you step back and look at this, you will see that in the $20 Trillion US GDP, more than $9 Trillion is now under matching funds, GM style "command" rules.

Which is why the "emergent" CV19 governance strategies like those in Sweden were de-facto outlawed.

What was once a "lean" self-learning 9-cell management sytem, has become a "obey the CEO" GM-style "single command post" network, with a much lower percentage of "gemba" driven daily "worker" JIT innovation.

See also the global emerging immunity to HIV, and other 'pandemics"

Viral particles are the Toyota Way on super steroids - muda ju-jitsu writ large.

The US GM-style vertical command system was the reason for the realities so well documented in this post.

Not current politics or TV news theories.

Check these data too.

In the US more than 70% all CV19 cases happened on less than 5% of the total land area of the US.

And more than 90% of CV19 cases happened on less than 15% of total US land area.

Think deeply about that, and the origins of shelter-in-place management theory.

That is the GM system on steroids.

Total network math is really important in stimulating adaptive network behavior.

PS - in the castle-and-roads illustration above, CV19 was like flaming arrrows, or catapult-thrown barrels of burning pitch - thrown over the walls to burn the castle interior.  That's why the US 'castle' strategy is perhaps not the best choice.  And - why city folks are rushing to buy country land, and RV sales are booming.

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