Lean production in the food industry

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“Lean” thinking is a cornerstone of the modern competitive marketplace. Originally emerging as a concept in motor vehicle production more than 100 years ago, “lean” has not traditionally been associated with food manufacturing. This is because the core principles of lean production: relentlessly reducing waste and quickening the flow of the product to the consumer, have not been strongly applied to food production, where raw materials are perishable and production is a continuous process.

Re-thinking “waste”

More recently, industry thinking has turned towards a more expansive concept of waste, which ties lean production more strongly to the food industry. Issues such as overproduction, waiting, non-value added processing, inefficient transportation, excess motion and un-utilised employee knowledge and skills have been added to the traditional notion of waste as just excess materials or product during production. Taking this broader view, there is much that can be done to make a food manufacturer’s operations “lean” from both a physical waste and a process perspective.

Running a lean operation

Armed with this broader concept of waste, there are many policies or practices you could implement in order to make your manufacturing operations “lean”.

Forecasting – start getting serious about how you’re making forecasts each week, month, and year. Use a programme that will pick up trends, outliers, seasonality, and other patterns in your historical data, rather than using rough calculations or guesswork. This will reduce waste from overproduction and consequent food spoilage.

Batch tracking – this involves tracking every ingredient and component involved in the creation and distribution of food items. Batch tracking gives insight into where ingredients originated, when they were collected or harvested, and when they were shipped to your warehouse. Too much of one component can mean wasted product and floor space, while too little equals lost sales opportunities, and hence the right balance must be found. Modern inventory management software programmes have powerful tracking capabilities that can find this balance.

Simplify processes – on a more practical note, critically examining your inventory and production processes can lead to large efficiency gains depending on what you find. Map out every process tied to inventory in detail, from when each ingredient arrives at your facility, through the production process, through to storage and then shipping to the customer. Try to spot points where something could be done simpler or faster. Ask yourself whether certain processes actually add value. Doing this periodically will likely allow you to make regular cost savings.

Effective transportation – as well as analysing the small details, take a step back to look at the bigger picture, and how inventory moves around your business. Is there a way in which certain products could be shipped together to save costs? Could different routes be used that save time and/or avoid spoilage and expiry? Could certain products go straight to the customer rather than go to storage first? A good inventory software programme will enable better visibility over every item.

Education is the key

Any one of the above ideas, has the potential to help transform your food manufacturing business into a lean operation. But keep in mind that any great idea needs to be implemented well. Fundamental to this is getting your employees on board with any change you make. In the food industry, happy employees are productive employees, so protect employee job satisfaction by fully consulting employees, giving them adequate training, and giving them time to adjust, before expecting them to fully comply with new practices. With the right implementation, you’ll be operating “lean” in no time.

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