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Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Can Agile Manufacturing Improve the Food Industry?

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

It’s no secret that the food and beverage industry is heavily regulated and filled to the brim with quality and process standards, if only to help ensure the health and safety of consumers. With these sorts of restrictions, it’s difficult to maintain flexibility and adapt to a changing world. That’s not to say it is impossible—it’s just more challenging.

Between shifting consumer demands, a greater need for accurate maintenance and compliance, and an increasingly competitive market, food providers and distributors are being forced to alter their current trajectories to keep up. Even fresh, organic foods are part of an arduous and complex process, with conventional operations taking precedence over innovative solutions.

One solution that seems to be spreading quickly in the industry is a push toward more agile development strategies. On paper, it seems like the methodology is a poor fit, especially considering the above-mentioned challenges and complications. But the reality is that agile manufacturing has a lot to contribute.

Why Agile Manufacturing and Development?

Agile manufacturing is a response to the fast moving, constantly in flux landscape of today’s marketplace. Through processes, tools and training, it puts an emphasis on quickly responding to customer needs while maintaining balanced costs and higher quality output. It is often confused with lean manufacturing, yet the two methodologies are separate.

The rapid response to customer needs that agile enables is a key staple of the methodology and highlights exactly why it’s been given the name “agile,” or speedy. By definition, agile teams and operations are in a much better place to deal with or react to short windows of opportunity and rapid demand changes.

Because today’s consumers want instant gratification, desire plenty of choice or personalization, and have shifting interests, agile manufacturing serves as an effective solution.

Four key elements or core values in the agile manifesto speak directly to food safety and compliance.

1. It Favors Individuals and Interactions

In agile manufacturing—also agile development—the operations are designed to put more emphasis on individuals and their interactions as opposed to the processes or tools adopted. Why is this fact important? Because it’s the people who do the work and drive the entire industry, especially when it comes to certain foods and goods.

Agile manufacturing recognizes that the most difficult challenges are often overcome through face-to-face interactions. It’s the more effective way to work.

2. It Emphasizes Working Software Over Documentation

In many industries—food and beverage being a key example—documentation reigns supreme, especially with complex processes or systems involved. A lots of time is placed on compiling the documentation, following up and conducting verification procedures.

Agile does away with a lot of the busywork. It doesn’t eliminate documentation and the related processes but instead streamlines everything so that it’s more actionable. In other words, the reporting process doesn’t serve as a hindrance, slowing down everything else. Instead, it happens in parallel to everything else, presenting a much smoother output.

3. Customer Collaboration Is a Priority

Despite its reliance on consumer demands, the food industry is rife with regulation, compliance protocols and various standards. The focus is taken away from the consumer in many cases just to remain efficient and safe. This shift becomes increasingly apparent during contract negotiations with various partners and third parties.

Agile recognizes that the emphasis on customer relationships creates a healthier environment for all and also provides a competitive advantage. It takes the customer feedback process and applies insights to just about every internal process, but in an effective way. And it’s all made possible with the help of modern technologies.

4. Flexibility and Versatility Are Part of Its Structure

Most methodologies or structured systems focus on building a plan and then sticking to that plan come hell or high water. This philosophy doesn’t work as well when you’re talking about a constantly shifting industry such as food and beverage.

Agile instead views market and demand change as something positive—as an opportunity to excel. In fact, with the right approach, that change can help provide increased value to a business or operation. Planning isn’t the enemy of agile, but instead serves as a guideline for where to go rather than a permanent route or decision. In this way, agile helps teams adapt to change faster and more openly than ever before while still remaining on track, eliminating delays that would put off a timely completion.

This system honors a more team-oriented approach to all aspects of an operation, allowing the skills and strengths of the entire team to shine through. Employees are empowered, gain much more value and have an incredible amount of influence over the entire operation. These changes are achieved primarily through a fostered culture that supports and encourages change.

Today’s Food Industry Requires Adaptability

Through a variety of remarkable solutions, which call for more modern processes, technologies and support systems, companies can better manage compliance and safety in the food industry. That is true whether these firms are manufacturing or producing the goods themselves, or distributing trade goods from other sources.

The agile methodology honors excellence and streamlined culture that understands and truly speaks to the need for change. One could argue that the future of the supply chain is headed in this direction anyway, with an emphasis on quality, accuracy and compliance.