Thursday, September 30, 2021

Just-in-Time and FOOD

Reader Aggie made the comment: "...The 'Just-in-time' concept is great - for assembly line manufacturing. What about systems that are subject to disproportionately-powerful outside influences?...If you truly believe in 'Just-in-time' - then why do you stock a pantry?..."

Aggie nailed two key points.

Just-in-Time can be a powerful driver of problem-solving IF the box is drawn around a system where the stakeholders have the wherewithal to solve the problems. It becomes significantly more problematic when processes "within the box" are subject to forces...noise if you prefer...that are not under the control of the stakeholders.

The second point is that food is different.


At the farm level, the yields varied even more wildly

Farm production can vary greatly from year-to-year. Some crops vary more than others. Corn and soybeans are fairly robust. Wheat varies more due to susceptibility to being blown-down in wind and hail storms and susceptibility to fungus. Due to its susceptibility to various fungi, much wheat is grown in dry regions and yield is tightly linked to the amount of moisture in the ground in the 75 days before the crop matures.

Fruits like apples and peaches yields vary even more with many parts of the country having a peach "crop" once every five years. In my own apple "orchard" the difference between a "bad" year and a "good" year is a factor of three or more.

Even if every harvest was a record, there is still the issue of most crops only being ready to harvest once a year. There are some exceptions like dairy cows and eggs, but the foodstuffs used to feed the cows and chickens generally fall into that once-a-year-bucket so you are not home-free.

And while there is flexibility within "food" as a category the bottom line is that things get very tense, very fast when the gross food-availability drops below 2500 Calories per-person-per-day. There are no substitutes for "Calories".

Supply Shocks

The effect of supply shocks is to pull ahead "demand".

People who were sure they could pick up a loaf of French Bread at Kroger's for the evening meal are now buying ahead.

The sad thing is that if you don't know how to store food then the food will spoil. The johnny-come-lately prepper not only denied others of food but find themselves without it as well.

The work around is to store an ample supply of non-perishable staples that are accepted by a wide range of eaters. Rice, potatoes, wheat (in grain form), beans, pasta, canned goods, sugar, raisins, edible oils/shortening and so on. If you have access to them then wild nuts (bumper crop of Black Walnuts here) and late apples are a nice addition. Fermented foods and beverages are often in demand.


I do use JIT or principles of lean manufacturing in making applesauce.

I cook enough apples in each batch to make a canner-load of mason jars. The first load must be a little bit bigger because I cannot get to the liquid beneath the false bottom of the double boiler setup. The last load is a little larger because I can harvest that liquid as I "break-down" the set-up for the day.

Is every load EXACTLY seven quarts worth of apples? Nope. Most are a little bit more and I end up with more than 28 at the end of the run.

Am I tempted to make them much more than seven quarts? No. The larger the batch of apples the more slowly the ones on top cook to mush. It doesn't pay.

Right now the bottleneck is the canner on the stove. The turkey-fryer puts out 55k BTU/hour and takes apples from 60F to 210F in a little more than 30 minutes. Note that I don't run it full blast once it comes-to-heat.

The canner on the 15k BTU/hr takes the same amount of apples (less skins, seeds and stems) plus the water in the canner from 160F to 210F in about an hour and fifteen minutes.

I could easily double my production rate by firing up a second 55k BTU turkey-fryer outside and using it for the canning kettle. I could quadruple it by adding a third 55k BTU for a second kettle of apples-to-mush to feed the canning kettle.

But then I would be the bottleneck and I don't want to run that fast all day long.

Industry in first-world countries recognize the human costs as the biggest barrier to profitabilility. Profitable systems are designed to make the human inputs "the anchor with the shortest chain" and be the bottleneck. Written a different way, the goal of designing modern, industrial equipment is to never have the operator waiting for the equipment. Rather, the equipment should be done and waiting for the operator.


  1. How did you peel and core that many apples? And what was your ratio of apples to sauce?

    1. I don't peel or core them.

      I wash them and then cut them in half. I cut out any really bad spots. Simple bruising is OK. Rot is not.

      After cooking, I run them through a "Squeezo-Strainer".

      My "standard load" for the steamer is a bit more than 14 pounds of apples plus two quarts of apple cider plus one quart of well-water. I sweeten with granulated sugar to taste and add about one teaspoon of cinnamon per load. That yields in the neighborhood of eight or nine quarts of sauce per steamer load.

      I don't know if that helped.

  2. The real issue is how hard you want to run. Sounds like your setup gives you a 'good' pace to get the things done and give you the requisite breaks the body needs.

  3. Any suggestions on processing black walnuts? Getting bombarded by a bumper crop this year.

    1. I put on a pair of gloves. I move the walnuts to a patch of pavement that I do not mind if it is stained. Then I step on the husks to crush them. Then I pitch the nut into a bucket. When the bucket is half full, I fill to near the top with water.

      Swish around. Pour out water. Repeat. Then spread nuts to dry. Once they are dry, they can be put into mesh bags and hung from the trusses in the garage.

      Lucky Pittman, my go-to guy for this kind of information, suggests that the Kenkel Nutcracker is a sturdy, cost effective nut cracker for hard-shelled nuts like Black Walnuts.

  4. My other point, unspoken, is that Just-In-Time philosophy only works (as you pointed out) in the highly-controlled micro-environment, as a performance enhancement problem-solving function that should be limited in its duration, and tightly controlled in its application.

    The assembly lines for new vehicles right now are ticking along - but there are thousands of newly-manufactured vehicles sitting parked in vast lots, missing their computer chips. I have read the problem is so severe, that they are re-designing certain systems to simplify them, decreasing optionality in order to relieve the requirement for chips.

    The fatal flaw with Just-In-Time principles is that the more they approach perfection in practice, the more likely they are prone to Single Point Failures in the available inventory function. Any shortfall brings the whole line to a halt. Manufacturing that is run on these principles as a business model needs to have a supporting buffer function that protects against these failures.

    The accountants didn't plan for these plummeting vehicle sales....the Finance team didn't plan for the disastrous drop in revenues and cash flow in their forward projections...the Annual report will bemoan the worldwide perturbations caused by COVID. But the key thing is - what will they do different, going forward??

    The disruptions to our supply chain will continue. Here's an interesting podcast, 30 minutes, with logistics expert Ross Kennedy, known as @Huntsman on Twitter.

  5. Just In Time is a great cost efficient methods that works wonderfully....right up until it doesn't. Then when it fails you're hosed. And it only takes one cog in the machine to fail to bring it ALL to a halt. If you're building plastic toys for kids and things grind to a halt some people may lose some money and some kids may be disappointed but society suffers no harm. But if the industry or product is vital and can't be produced or provided the damage to society is significant. And one cog of the machine.... critical to ALL industries. Smart people will always have enough of what they need on hand to cope with the inevitable breaks in the Just In Time system.

  6. Part of the food issue s as you mention many items are harvested once a year. For instance last fall a friend hit all the big stores on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska and couldn’t find canned tomatoes! Mid summer this year we couldn’t find diced tomatoes in Costco in Anchorage but did find some next trip. Early in the pandemic many chickens and pigs ended up in land fills because processors had too many workers sick.. With the stimulus payments etc how much fruit and veggies won’t get processed in an industry that traditionally pays near minimum wage. If farmers can’t sell products including chickens and pigs how are they going to start a new crop for next year. Just a thought.


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