Just in time knowledge

The idea of just in time (JIT) comes from manufacturing, it meant changing processes so a part would only be manufactured when it was needed, reducing stock that isn’t needed. Can we take these lean ideas of waste reduction and apply them to knowledge?

JIT knowledge, means not knowing specific knowledge until you need it and then looking it up. This is especially possible nowadays due to the internet’s vast streams of information, discoverable moments away. This means it’s now practical to look up information on demand.

Sources non-JIT


I think I need to mention one of the largest sources of non-JIT knowledge in our life: education. I think early primary school is actually JIT friendly because learning maths, how to write etc. is needed at this stage of life to be able to interact in the world successfully.

The first major source of high levels of non-JIT information is secondary school, as this covers a broad set of topics. It depends on the school but many different subjects are taught alongside the core subjects (maths, English and science).

University narrows the scope considerably taking a in-depth view of a narrow slice, often looking at sub-topics within a field. This may still give you knowledge that you won’t need but is more likely to come up in the future (if you get a career in that field).

Later Life

Vast quantities of information is received passively as an adult, most of this information doesn’t have an impact on your day to day life. For example, the most of the news isn’t particularly relevant to you (unless your name is Donald).

It’s also common to share non-JIT information in the workplace, for example, meetings to show how a certain sub-system works, even if you don’t interact with it. Another example would be long email chain that you’re included in that is not relevant to your work.

I’m sure you can think of many more work and non-work examples.



There are two memory biases relevant to rest of the article:

Verbatim effect: There are two types of knowledge: the gist and the concrete facts and figures, the gist is remembered better than the verbatim facts. I can remember that Milgram’s experiment uses a shocking box and many people will follow the authority, but I can’t remember numbers of participants or the variations that he did. This comes from Fuzzy-Trace theory.

Context effects: that ideas in context are much easier to remember than memories that are currently out of context. This is why you can remember a memory after somebody reminds you of a detail. This really isn’t helpful at pub quizzes.

What this means

Of the knowledge gained in education, small amounts are remembered verbatim, with more being remembered as gists, then we have the memories that require context effects and finally the information we have totally forgotten.

If we retain the gist of information, it’s much easier to come back to the information at a later stage and renew your memory of the specifics, as you don’t need to learn it all from scratch. As you dive in context memories are remembered helping you out.

One example of this happening to me, is as a child I couldn’t wrap my head around why you would ever use pointers, I spent days trying to work out why you would use them. Came back a year or two later and it was now plainly obvious to me from just reading a brief summary of them.

Therefore, remembering the gist of the information can unlock the detailed deeper information with some slight prodding and hints.

Non-jit info needs to be gist level

Non-JIT information needs to be information that is ‘gistable’. If it’s gistable then people will have a take away from the information you have given, as they will forget any concrete subject matter. If the information only contains concrete information most of this will be lost.

This is one of the core problems with adult information, much of it is not really gistable. If we take a item of news, we can’t make a gist of X has done X, unless it’s particularly big.

Can we use JIT and the internet instead

I think the strongest problem is that many ideas, are developed from combining ideas from different disciplines in a new way. For example, this post combines the JIT ideas from manufacturing and the psychology of memories.

Another obvious problem is that if you don’t know about the existence of something, you are not able to search out additional information on the matter using that kernel. Therefore, you may be missing a piece of the puzzle.

This argues early investments in education are important as they build up your banks of gists, any of which you may require in the future. Different gists will be needed by different people but you all get that foundation. I didn’t expect to use some of the knowledge learnt at school, but years later those gists helped me dive quickly in when it became relevant.

So the answer is it depends. If it’s specific information that the internet can give us, we should learn it just in time. Even though we will be slower at learning it, without a gist, as we have to start learning the first time. If we have a wide array of gists for foundational information and we get a ‘cache hit’ we can spin up much quicker and then use the buried contextual information.

I’m not a psychologist, this post contains my thoughts on the matter.