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General living systems theory and just-in-time manufacturing: a framework for change.

General Living Systems Theory And Just-In-Time Manufacturing: A Framework For Change

Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. It is viewed by many as a tool to improve manufacturing productivity, allowing companies to compete more effectively, particularly when it involves global competition. There is very little doubt that JIT manufacturing can dramatically improve organizational performance (see Hall, Schonberger, Walleigh).

Hall narrowly defines JIT as referring to the movement or transport of material to have only the necessary material at the necessary place at the necessary time. Broadly defined it refers to all the activities of manufacturing that are necessary to make the JIT movement of material possible. This broad definition implies that a number of conditions must be present in the organization before JIT will work. Included are short setup times, small lot sizes and very high quality to name just a few of the requirements.

Many questions have been raised during the 1980s over the transportability of JIT to the United States. Many firms use common misconceptions as excuses to block the implementation of JIT; however, none of the obstacles are insurmountable (Walleigh). The JIT philosophy is a very logical, systematic approach to manufacturing. Its uncomplicated principles are a strength, but applying those principles to practice requires an approach totally different from traditional manufacturing in the United States. What is lacking in today's environment is a framework that can be used to research or implement organizational change, e.g., JIT conversion. General Living Systems Theory (GLST) can act as a guide to understand the structure, processes and behavior of the organization, and then that knowledge can be used to implement change.

Application of GLST

The GLST model has had broad application to organizations since its inception. Reidenbach & Oliva introduced the concept of applying GLST as a framework to develop marketing theory. They developed their theory based on the living systems model proposed by Miller. Miller identifies key characteristics that all living systems must have to survive. These are that living systems:

* are open -- i.e, have permeable boundaries and require matter/energy

and information transfers across those boundaries for

survival; * are negentropic -- i.e., energy renewing; * are complex above a minimum level; * contain a blueprint of their structure and process from the

moment of origin; * contain organic compounds; * have a decision-making unit controlling the entire system; * have 19 critical subsystems or are in parasitic or symbiotic

relationships with systems that provide the missing functions; * have subsystems that are integrated, self regulating and act as

a whole with a purpose; and, * can exist only in a given environment.

Reidenbach & Oliva believed that the nine characteristics Miller uses to describe GLST are applicable to all living systems, whether they are organisms (plants, animals or humans) or organizations (families, groups, cities, nations). An advantage to the GLST approach is that the characteristics of the system are not bound by artificial boundaries, e.g., manufacturing, marketing or finance. Instead they are identified by the functions they perform. Furthermore, GLST avoids the tendency to simply define the elements within the system in isolation. The interrelationships of the subsystems must be considered. GLST also encourages a holistic approach, integrated team oriented research, and the standardized framework that can systematically test research over time to reinforce or dispute previous results. The end result is a more comprehensive body of knowledge for any given discipline.

An application of GLST that has not been considered to date is its use as a tool to facilitate the implementation of a JIT system. While case studies on implementing JIT tend to emphasize the success stories, there are numerous examples of problems that develop due to the failure to consider the role of, or important interrelationships that exist for, critical subsystems within the organization. Examples include the failure to properly deal with suppliers, failure to adequately involve the workforce and a lack of management commitment (Walleigh). Miller has proposed a useful GLST model for analyzing and guiding efforts in implementing JIT systems. Table 1 lists Miller's 19 critical subsystems, which must be considered during the implementation of organizational change. If a system lacks any of the characteristics listed in Table 1, it will not survive.

From this model, selected characteristics critical to the successful implementation and operation of an effective JIT system are discussed as follows.

Ingestor. The system must contain an ingestor to bring raw materials into the system from the environment. The challenge to the organization is how to optimize this activity by considering the interrelationships that exist between the ingestor and all other subsystems. JIT manufacturing requires raw materials that are high quality, have frequent deliveries and are acceptably priced. To emphasize only price (as currently practiced by many companies) is to operate in a vacuum. In order to achieve the above requirements, the firm must broaden its perspective to consider the number of suppliers it will use, their distance from the plant, their product quality and the level of communication with the supplier.

Convertor. The converter is the critical subsystem that is responsible for changing the form of inventory (adds value to work in process [WIP]) as it moves throughout the production process. The converter is the foundation of any JIT manufacturing system. Process improvement, setup reduction and outstanding quality are JIT characteristics that are predominantly affected by the converter. Process improvement is directed toward reducing production operations to the minimum necessary. Setup reduction is crucial to inventory reduction (a major goal of JIT) because it allows the manufacturer to produce in smaller lots. The results are to have less WIP in the plant. Outstanding quality refers to a dramatic reduction in rework and wasted materials, which also reduces inventory levels due to an elimination of the need for inventory buffers and overproduction to allow for scrap.

Internal Transducer. The internal transducer is the process of transmitting information among the subsystems within the organization. Davis and Olson point out that an improved information or communication system allows the organization to tightly couple its subsystems by reducing the need for decoupling mechanisms, e.g., inventory buffers. Within manufacturing the internal transducer emphasizes the need for communication and a tight coupling of the work centers in the JIT plant. Each individual operator must have immediate awareness of production problems that have the potential for disrupting his work center (stopping the work flow). This is not possible if the communication system is sluggish and has slow response times. Tightly coupled work centers, which are necessary to minimize inventory buffers, enhance plant operations because they prevent production problems from being ignored. A common analogy is that reducing inventory buffers is like lowering the water level to uncover treacherous rocks that prevent safe passage (Hall). In the plant, one worker's problems can quickly bring subsequent processes to a halt. Schonberger states that all workers, and their supervisors, have production quotas to meet; withheld praise, enforced overtime or reprimands are in store for those who fail to meet quotas. So it is natural for each affected worker to want to come to the aid of the worker whose drive bolt breaks, whose machine is jammed or who is having any of a large variety of other common problems.

Matter-Energy Storage. This refers to all inventory in the system that is not in the process of being converted. In addition to raw materials and finished goods this includes WIP inventory that is not actively being moved or converted. The inactive WIP is considered buffer stock.

An important performance measure for a JIT manufacturer is its level of inventory, particularly raw materials and WIP. Manufacturers that operate with minimal amounts of buffer stock are forced to become flexible, minimize setup time and produce very high levels of quality.

Associator. The associator and memory subsystems form the learning process and the storage of information for use at a later time. The learning process will be enhanced by having cross-operation, cross-shift and cross-functional meetings. This information transfer (internal transducer) will move knowledge that has already been acquired by one individual or group throughout the the organization. The value of this information will be enhanced if it can be stored in a flexible database to support future decision making, i.e., a decision support system.

Input Transducer. The input transducer brings information regarding the external environment into the system. It is this subsystem that evaluates changes in customer buying behavior, recognizes changes in government regulation, analyzes competitor actions, etc. Without this contact with the external environment, the system will eventually exhibit signs of entropy, and eventually fail.

Decider. The decider is the executive subsystem that receives information inputs from all other subsystems to control the entire system. The decider would make the strategic decision to implement JIT manufacturing based on information it receives from the other subsystems regarding customer demands, competitive pressures, and perceived JIT benefits.

Teleological. A GLST characteristic that is not specified by any one critical subsystem is that the entire system acts as a teleological, or goal seeking, whole. All systems embody components, or subsystems, that interact, and their interaction must be in cooperation to effectively achieve organizational objectives. The JIT concept of striving for continuous improvement exemplifies the teleological characteristic. Continuous improvement should be made until the organization can achieve the following:

* Products the customers want; * Produce products only at the rate

customers want them; * Perfect quality products; * A reduction to zero in unnecessary lead

time; * Every move made with a purpose so

there is zero idle inventory, and no waste

of labor, material or equipment; and, * Methods that allow for the development

of people (Hall).

This concept is also illustrated by Schonberger who notes the common Japanese plea to avoid muri, muda or mura. Muri means "excess," muda means "waste," and mura means "unevenness".

Interrelatedness of subsystems

The importance of considering the interrelatedness of Miller's critical subsystems cannot be overemphasized. The components of JIT are performed by an identifiable and specific set of critical subsystems. When the activities of a JIT component are analyzed, its interrelations must be considered. It is interesting to note that when an organization fails in its attempt to implement JIT it is not due to technical problems in engineering or manufacturing that cannot be overcome. It is generally due to a failure to consider how the operational changes impact other critical subsystems and the organization as a whole.

The impact of having high quality standards illustrates some important interrelationships. A major component of JIT is making the machine operators primarily responsible for quality. When quality problems are discovered that result in unacceptable parts, quality control procedures require that the entire production line must virtually come to a halt until the problem is corrected. This places tremendous pressure on the individual work center that is causing the problem, but it also pressures everyone on the production line when it affects their ability to produce parts. The reason for taking such drastic measures is to make everyone keenly aware of problems when they occur so they are exposed and corrected immediately. (As previously discussed, minimal inventory buffer between work centers avoids the possibility of problems going unnoticed.)

The ramifications of this policy on quality control extend well beyond the conversion subsystem when one takes the systems approach. The design department (the producer subsystem) must be a part of the team that designs quality into the part. We already know that products must be designed to meet customer needs. However, in a sense the production department is the design department's "customer," and they need parts that are designed to facilitate production efficiency at a high level of quality.

Obviously the ingestor subsystem is affected. If a vendor ships defective product, and the product makes it to the production line, it too could shut down production. This applies to defective or improperly maintained equipment as well as defective raw materials.

The internal transducer helps keep all necessary subsystems aware of how the new manufacturing process will effect their critical subsystems. Marketing, through the encoder and output transducer, communicates the benefits of JIT manufacturing to the external environment. Results are in the form of higher quality and faster customer response times.

Natural fit

The concepts of JIT and the systems approach to manufacturing are a natural fit. When problem solving, both emphasize the need for considering the organization as a whole, using a team effort, and maintaining a goal-oriented approach. One problem with the implementation of JIT systems is that there is no comprehensive approach for all industries. The advantage of using the GLST framework is that it provides an outline of concepts that can be applied to all organizations. It also requires consideration of fundamental organizational changes that must be made before JIT can provide the benefits that are vital to the health of U.S. manufacturing.

Table 1: Living systems subsystems.

Subsystems which process both matter-energy and information 1. Reproducer, the subsystem capable

of giving rise to other systems similar

to the one it is in. 2. Boundary, the subsystem at the

perimeter that holds together the

components making up the system,

protects them from environmental

stresses, and excludes or permits

entry to various sorts of matter-energy

and information.

Subsystems which process matter-energy 3. Ingestor, the subsystem that brings

matter-energy across the system

boundary from the environment. 4. Distributor, the subsystem that

carries inputs from outside the system

or outputs from its subsystem around

the system to each component. 5. Converter, the subsystem that

changes certain inputs to the system

into forms more useful for the social

processes of that particular system. 6. Producer, the subsystem that forms

stable associations that endure for

significant periods among

matter-energy inputs to the system or

outputs from its converter, the materials

synthesized being for growth,

damage repair, or replacement of

components of the system, or for

providing energy for moving or

constituting the system's outputs of

products or information markers to its

suprasystem. 7. Matter-energy Storage, the

subsystem that retains in the system, for

different periods of time, deposits of

various sorts of matter-energy. 8. Extruder, the subsystem that

transmits matter-energy out of the system

in the forms of products or wastes. 9. Motor, the subsystem that moves

the system or parts of it in relation to

part or all of its environment or moves

components of its environment in

relation to each other. 10. Supporter, the subsystem that

maintains the proper spatial relationships

among components of the system,

so that they can interact without

weighing each other down or

crowding each other.

Subsystems which process information 11. Input Transducer, the sensory

subsystem that brings markers bearing

information into the system, changing

them to other matter-energy forms

suitable for transmission within it. 12. Internal Transducer, the sensory

subsystem that receives, from subsystems

or components within the system,

markers bearing information about

significant alterations in those subsystems

or components, changing them to other

matter-energy forms of a sort that can

be transmitted within it. 13. Channel and Net, the subsystem

composed of a single route in physical

space or multiple interconnected

routes, by which markers bearing

information are transmitted to all parts of

the system. 14. Decoder, the subsystem that alters

the code of information input to it

through the input transducer or

internal transducer into a "private" code

that can be used internally by the

system. 15. Associator, the subsystem that carries

out the first stage of the learning

process, forming enduring associations

among items of information in the

system. 16. Memory, the subsystem that carries

out the second stage of the learning

process, storing various sorts of

information in the system for different

periods of time. 17. Decider, the executive subsystem that

receives information inputs from all

other subsystems and transmits to

them information outputs that control

the entire system. 18. Encoder, the subsystem that alters

the code of information input to it from

other information processing

subsystems, from a private code used

internally by the system into a public

code that can be interpreted by other

systems in its environment. 19. Output Transducer, the subsystem that

puts out markers bearing information

from the system, changing markers

within the system into other

matter-energy forms that can be transmitted

over channels in the system's


Further reading

Bertalanfiy, L.V. 1972. "The history and status of general systems theory." Academy of Management Journal, 15(4). Boulding, K. 1956. "General systems theory-the skeleton of science." Management Science, 3 (8) B. Davis, G.B. & Olson, M.H. 1985. Management Information Systems. New York: McGraw-Hill. Drucker, P. 1981. "Behind Japan's success," Harvard Business Review, January-February. Hall, R. 1983. Zero Inventories. Homewood, Il: Dow Jones-Irvin. Hendrick, T. 1988. "The |fake pull' in a kanban environment: acceptable trade-off or violation of principle?" Production and Inventory Management Journal, April-June. Kast, F.E. & Rosenzweig, J.E. 1972. "General systems theory: applications for organization and management." Academy of Management Journal, 15 (4). Malley, J.C. & Ray, R. 1988. "Informational and organizational impacts of implementing a JIT system." Production and Inventory Management Journal, April-June. Miller, J.G. 1978. LivingSystems. New York: McGraw-Hill. Reidenbach, R.E. & Oliva, T.A. 1981. "General living systems theory and marketing: a framework for analysis." Journal of Marketing, Fall. Ritzman, K.B. & Krazewski, L. 1982. "Manufacturing performance-pulling the right levers." Harvard Business Review, March/April. Schonberger, R. 1982. Japanese Manufacturing Techniques. New York: The Free Press. Walleigh, R. 1986. "Getting things done." Harvard Business Review, March-April.

Dan Swenson, is a graduate student in the School of Accountancy, University of Mississippi, University, Miss. John Malley, Ph.D., is associate professor, MIS, School of Business, University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Ark. Phil Balsmeier, Ph.D., is chair, marketing department, School of Business, Nicolls State University, Thibodaux, La.
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Author:Swenson, Dan
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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