Friday, May 6, 2011

Just in Time

Chance Encounter, 2003

Isn’t it interesting how life sometimes puts things right in front of you exactly when you need them?

Yeah, I know, sometimes life’s a day late. And I suppose it’s sometimes a day early, too, though you probably don’t even notice that. But neither of those has been my luck lately.

I’ve had a big decision weighing on my mind. It’s a tough one with lots of potential for fireworks. It occurred to me yesterday that a friend of mine has some experience with this kind of quandary and that I ought to seek her counsel. But I let other things get in the way and didn’t get around to calling her.

Then I found out that we’ll be seated together at a meeting today. So there you have it: just who I needed to see just when I needed to see her.

In a separate matter, earlier this week I received a request for a proposal from a potentially new client. Unfortunately, the RFP is written in such ambiguous language that it’s not clear what the objectives are. I’d really like to get this project. But in my business a vague RFP is a red flag. When a client can’t tell you, or won’t be honest about what they want, it’s unlikely that what you do will produce results that meet their needs. When this happens, nobody’s happy and you get blamed.

When faced with such situations, it’s usually a matter of talking to the client to help them better frame their expectations. But neither of the client-side people who could help sort this out have been available. The response is due today. This means I either 1) respond with a proposal that is as vague as the RFP, 2) respond with a proposal that isn’t what they asked for but which seems to be what they need or 3) not respond at all.

I was weighing these choices yesterday while I went for my morning walk. To my surprise, the first podcast I turned to on my iPod was an interview conducted this week with the CEO of the very organization that issued the RFP. So there you have it again: just who I needed to hear from just when I needed to hear from him.

Years ago the Japanese pioneered the idea of just-in-time manufacturing. Instead of a manufacturer stockpiling warehouses of raw materials the manufacturer learns how to gauge its raw material needs so well that it can coordinate purchasing and delivery so that the raw materials show up exactly when they are needed. Just in time.

Until yesterday I’d never really noticed how just-in-time applies in other aspects of life. I’m sure a lot of people will attribute this to some kind of divine intentionality, as in “You need, God provides.” I tend to be a little more scientific about it, attributing these seemingly coincidental occurrences to the mathematics—or is it the physics?—of the circles in which I run.

I’ll even put on my research guy hat and suggest that in terms of probabilities, these little serendipitous intersections of need and fulfillment are so few as to be statistically insignificant. But they’re highly noticeable, so we remember them and give them greater meaning than they deserve among the thousands of other collisions that occur every day between us and other people, information and things.

In his book Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut suggested that each of us is part of a different interconnected system of people with whom we move through life. He called this phenomenon our karass.

Vonnegut’s concept of the karass was made up, part of a larger fictitious religion called Bokononism that he created to explain the connections between the characters in Cat’s Cradle. And while it is imaginary, a conceit of Vonnegut’s wonderfully wry sense of humor, in my experience it goes a long way towards explaining why the information and resources I sometimes need show up just in time.

If all this talk of math and metaphysics tires you, maybe this Jule Styne/Comden & Green chestnut, Just in Time will be just what you needed about now.


  1. The only reason I don't comment more often on your posts is that the overuse of superlatives undermines their impact. Excellent, as always, Chris! Thank you for this gem!

  2. Interesting essay. Something else to think about.....maybe the things that happen to us every day or the people we meet that we don't notice or don't deem important are really just missed opportunities.

  3. Maybe we're sometimes just more receptive to what's there right in front of us all the time. And sometimes I think it really is just serendipity. I like that photo a lot!