Breaking The (Supply) Chains, by Nick Colas

Much of the current supply chain problems are rooted in just-in-time inventory management. From Nick Colas at DataTrek Research via

“Supply chain disruptions” has become a catch-all phrase to explain product shortages and inflation. But how exactly does that work, and why is this problem taking so long to fix? For Story Time this week, Nick uses his 30 years of experience analyzing the US auto industry to explain what’s going on. It all comes down to “lean manufacturing”, which started in Japan after World War II and caught on worldwide in the 1980s/1990s. The pandemic has created systematic challenges to “lean”, enough that structural inflation is a threat.

Here is a story about how supply chains work and why they are so snarled just now. Yes, a grimy topic compared to some of our others, but important and my personal history as a long-time (30 years) auto industry analyst gives me a unique perspective on the issue.

To understand how global supply chains operate the way they do today, you really need to go back to Japan just after World War II.

The country, defeated and impoverished, desperately needed to restart its industrial base. It did so by producing what it could with a minimum of capital. That meant, for example, no capital-intensive vertical integration; there were parts suppliers, and then there were final assembly companies. It also meant keeping the supply chain tightly integrated to maximize throughput.

This spawned a new production model, now commonly known as lean manufacturing, and Japan’s auto companies led the way in its adoption.

Parts like exterior metal stampings and interior trim like seats and dashboards all arrived at automotive final assembly plants from suppliers within a few hours of when they were installed in a vehicle moving down an assembly line. Also, vehicle designers thought not just about how a vehicle looked or drove, but how it would be assembled. They designed for ease and cost of manufacturability and long-run quality as well as for consumer tastes.

For decades, this process was mostly unique to Japanese manufacturing.

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