Taiichi Ohno got some hints about “Just In Time” from American supermarkets.
Supermarkets are everyday things today. But how was it when Ohno was growing up?
Here I compare some old shopping systems that existed until Ohno’s time.
This intention is not to introduce another set of Japanese words or culture. Instead, I learned that “Supermarket” is very foreign. I think Ohno or Toyota always observed retail and other businesses, thinking about how they could learn. Once they found something interesting, they would try it, even if it was of a foreign origin.
Just like any civilization, the “market” was everywhere in Japan. Many places include the symbol “市,” representing “market.” (The same character means “city,” which is confusing.) For example, Yokkaichi [四日市] was named after the market opened when the last digit of the date was four. “Market” was connected to authorities such as samurai, shrines, temples, etc. They provided protection and control. Also, trade guild [座] was very common.
Kariya, the city where Ohno grew up, is a typical samurai city. The center of the town is the castle. Then, samurai homes surrounded the castle. Then, the merchant was collected nearby. Since Ohno is from a samurai family, Ohno’s family likely walked towards such a merchant town. For example, this Izumiya started as a Sake manufacturer and expanded to sesame oils in Kariya. The business changed but still exists. It is important to note that these merchants are also manufacturers. They produced their goods. And, not many choices. For example, there are many types of Miso in Japan, but most likely, a merchant carries its own kind. As a kid growing up in the area, you don’t recognize that your Miso is unique until you live in a large city. This is still the case in my experience. The abundance of choices available at the supermarket must have been an enormous surprise.
Such a merchant didn’t just sell at the front of the store. More likely, they made “door-to-door” sales called “Goyoukiki [御用聞].” The “door-to-door” sales were not merchants randomly visiting. Instead, based on historical relationships, the merchant sees its clients to know whether they want to buy their product. Relationship-related sales in Kariya in “old” houses are still alive in the 21st century. The Matsuzaka-ya department store has a “large customer” department that sells goods outside based on demand. This relationship is almost a status in the region. Ohno’s father was a politician in Kariya, and I assume there were many such merchants. This word, “Goyoukiki,” is used by old folks in manufacturing. It refers to someone like an operator or a material handler who is asking around what to do or what to bring. It is a waste. Such activity should be eliminated by providing signals and kanban. This word, “Goyoukiki,” appears in Ohno’s book “Toyota production system” and is translated as “going around to customers to take orders. (p.26)”
Another type of retail model is called the “medicine seller from Toyama.” In this business model, the seller keeps a box full of medicine, and the customer pays for what they use. This business model started when Toyama’s Daimyo (landlord) was in a financial crisis. They found out that they produced good medicine and wanted to increase sales. So they started such a business model. Toyama and Kariya are 250km apart, but the tradition continues. Several houses in Kariya (or in the region) still carry such medicine, even if the drug stores are near. Great business model? There is a catch in this business model. Toyama’s case was successful, and people say that is because the “cost is 20%, the margin is 80%.” Not sure how true this statement is, but it requires keeping a massive inventory at each household (more than three months of inventory). Not sure how they control expiration and FIFO since I always find issues when I open the box. The word “medicine seller from Toyama” is used inside production. It refers to a material handler walking around with inventory without any designation. It is a waste. Again, Ohno used this word and translated it as “peddling medicines door to door. (p.26)”
Another type of merchant is called “Huriuri[振売].” In this case, the seller walks around carrying the product. In many cases, they sold food, which they sold all by the end of the day. In some cases, they were service people, like repairing goods. Since humans carry around, there's a limit to how many products to carry. And the timing depends on the seller. Even in the ‘80s, Tofu merchant was doing this kind of model. As soon as you hear the sound or the music, the buyer has to stop anything that they are doing and rush out to get the products. I heard that some old folks referred to Huriuri maintenance. Maintenance walks around with its toolbox asking if someone needs service. Once started, the maintenance learned that it didn’t carry the necessary components. Or, when the line needs maintenance, they learn that the specialist has already left. Again, this word is used in Ohno’s book and translated as “hawking wares (p.26).”
In Japan, American-style supermarkets arrived in the fifties. So by the time Ohno was developing TPS, there were some supermarkets. However, most of these supermarkets started in Japan's “fancy” part, not industrial or rural areas. When Ohno visited the USA in 1956, that must be the first time he saw and experienced the supermarket. And, compared to what it was before, this visit must have been an enormous shock.
Today, a supermarket is typical, but there are so many kinds of retail. Retail is different in each country, too. And retail is constantly changing. The next generations might do everything online and deliver it to their homes. “Supermarket” might become rare. Already, we don’t use coins like we used to. So in the future, we might have to explain what a supermarket is. But such diverse conditions are learning opportunities for us. What is good and what is wrong? There is always something we can learn and try.