To lower the amount of inventory and still maintain they stock they need to satisfy their customers, some organizations use just-in-time inventory systems in both good times and bad. Firms with just-in-time inventory systems keep very little inventory on hand. Instead, they contract with their suppliers to ship them inventory as they need it—and even sometimes manage their inventory for them—a practice called vendor-managed inventory (VMI). Dell is an example of a company that utilizes a just-in-time inventory system that’s vendor managed. Dell carries very few component parts. Instead, its suppliers carry them. They are located in small warehouses near Dell’s assembly plants worldwide and provide Dell with parts “just-in-time” for them to be assembled. 1
Dell’s inventory and production system allows customers to get their computers built exactly to their specifications, a production process that’s called mass customization. This helps keep Dell’s inventory levels low. Instead of a huge inventory of expensive, already-assembled computers consumers may or may not buy, Dell simply has the parts on hand, which can be configured or reconfigured should consumers’ preferences change. Dell can more easily return the parts to its suppliers if at some point it redesigns its computers to better match what its customers want. And by keeping track of its customers and what they are ordering, Dell has a better idea of what they might order in the future and the types of inventory it should hold. Because mass customization lets buyers “have it their way,” it also adds value to products, for which many customers are willing to pay.