Matthew Kopecky  |  08/01/2008

Creating a Culture of Quality in the Food Industry

Getting fresh food to the shelves requires both supply-chain and supply-quality management.



10 Steps to Creating a Culture of Quality


• Guarantee that processes are controlled across the entire supply chain.

• Create a risk-based system for gauging and ranking suppliers.

• Realize that quality problems always exist.

• Implement proper escalation procedures.

• Determine the root causes of issues in the supply chain.

• Apply effectiveness checks in a closed-loop system.

• Ensure companywide corrective and preventive action policies.

• Institute a proper process for customer complaint and inquiry management.

• Identify customer needs and resolve issues for continuous improvement.

• Eliminate the disconnect between C-level management and quality controllers.


For years, the manufacturing industry has sustained the opposing perspectives and competing priorities of supply-chain and supply-quality management. Take the grocery industry, for example. The need to ensure that food reaches store shelves quickly is at odds with the painstaking attention to quality required during the manufacturing process. Obviously, manufacturing quality must be linked directly to supply-chain efficiency so that food arrives on the shelves quickly and at the peak of freshness.

Why is it so difficult for supply-chain and supply-quality management to reach a practical understanding?

The answer at first seems disarmingly simple. The biggest challenge facing the manufacturers of perishables is poor communication between senior management and those responsible for adhering to quality procedures. To confront these challenges, organizations must create a culture of quality that receives support at the top and permeates the supply chain.

In reality, enforcing this culture is much easier said than done. It requires much more than a clever catch phrase. As with any industry, the first step in correcting problems is realizing that problems exist.

Challenges to a culture of quality

In the manufacturing industry, ensuring that raw materials and finished products meet the requirements and specifications of government regulatory bodies can be enormously difficult. As was recently seen with toys manufactured with lead paint, this can create public panic and lead to a lack of trust. In the worst case, these kinds of problems may prove fatal to consumers. It can take years to recover from the negative attention.

Another dilemma that manufacturers face is how to restrain the spiraling costs associated with massive supply chains and low inventory turnover. How quickly can an organization reuse existing capital and become more efficient in buying materials, manufacturing the finished product, and moving it from one end of the chain to the other? For example, if an organization manages to accomplish this process 20 times per year as opposed to 10 times per year, both revenue and profit will increase. This can be difficult when working quality into each step in the process and receiving material that doesn’t conform to the standards necessary for the chain. This leads to product variations that must be addressed, such as whether to rework and use, return to the vendor, or scrap the material altogether. Raw material ties up an organization’s capital, and problems like this occur in every step of the supply chain, resulting in significant and needless costs.

With longer supply chains resulting from global outsourcing, manufacturers are faced with ensuring quality in the products that they receive from their suppliers. Thus the challenge is to develop a strategy in which the supply-chain partners target the performance measures and objectives so that manufacturers receive raw materials, ingredients, or components that meet their customers’ requirements. It’s efficient to focus on controlling suppliers’ processes, so that products are manufactured correctly.

Ensuring quality is especially difficult because global suppliers increase the complexity of the supply chain. The standards and government regulations of other countries inevitably compress the manufacturing timeline to meet delivery deadlines and hinder getting the right parts to the right place at the right time. Controlling the interactions that take place across the supply chain requires time and resources that companies either don’t have, or simply aren’t willing to invest.

There will never be a cure-all solution that will make these daunting challenges disappear. However, it’s possible for every manufacturer to adopt a culture of quality and reap the business benefits--including higher margins and lower risk--associated with it.

Finding solutions

One tool to which manufacturers increasingly turn is the newly reinvigorated philosophy of Six Sigma, which is enjoying a revival because of its proven record for continuous improvement and its ability to improve processes by removing defects. As a methodology, Six Sigma is controversial in board rooms, requiring, as it does, the additional investment of hiring experts to make it work. However, combined with newer business process improvement technologies, Six Sigma has be-- come a winning option for many manufacturers.

A process adaptable to many industries is a closed-loop corrective action system. It is used to address failure and prevent its reoccurrence by identifying the root cause of the problem, defining a corrective action, implementing the change, then tracking and assessing the effectiveness of the corrective action. Although this can be a cost- prohibitive method of improving automation, it’s an effective way to improve product reliability and enhance quality processes.

Are these processes enough to improve overall quality? Not unless follow-through procedures ensure that preventive actions are taken quickly. When something unanticipated occurs in your organization, who usually gets notified? How quickly can that person react before the issue becomes a bigger problem? This is where senior-level management becomes involved. Executives at the highest levels must ensure that a procedure is in place to notify the right people when quality problems arise.

This can be a tricky proposition. Breakdowns in a preventive-action process can occur when procedures are manual, and managers are too busy or inattentive to work with the employees and processes involved. It’s easy for issues to go unnoticed because today’s leaner manufacturers generally do much more work with far fewer people. In short, quality can take a back seat to production and profit. However, with ever-expanding government regulations--particularly in the realm of manufacturing perishable goods or medicines--ensuring that quality issues will be promptly addressed can make the difference between a profitable business and a company- wide shutdown. It’s that important.

Agencies that inspect the quality of goods will examine problems within a supply chain and find the root causes. Effectiveness checks and closed-loop systems are where most companies’ processes fall short, mainly because they’re often viewed as an afterthought. As a result, other quality processes go unchecked; in many cases, organizations are doing well to make it beyond a corrective action to develop a preventive process for the future.

The real reason that quality management is so important has nothing to do with battling government agencies, however. It’s the customer who really counts. The final step in ensuring quality is instituting a proper process for customer complaint and inquiry management. After all, customers are where revenues come from, and the window of opportunity to win over repeat customers is open for only a short time. Customers in most industries will go elsewhere if they aren’t satisfied, so the quicker you can identify trends to fix a quality problem, the better off you’ll be. Along those same lines, the sooner you can remediate a problem with a customer, the more amiable they’ll be and the more likely to stay loyal to your company. Identifying customer needs and resolving issues is critical to continuous improvement.

Quality issues apply across industries, but in the grocery industry they’re second to none. Customers are everything in this marketplace, and retention is crucial. As such, the entire customer-service process needs remediation, whether it’s problems with the supply chain or ensuring that a product is safe for consumption. This is why being able to reconcile supply chain with supply-quality management is of paramount concern.

Why a quality culture is essential

So where does that leave us? We know how crucial it is to uphold supply-quality management, and we also know that a plethora of issues accompany that challenge. Forget about software as the magic bullet. Although it may help, if the processes are flawed, technology will only help problems crop up faster.

What’s the real answer? Instill the urgency for quality in top-level executives. To support these initiatives, continuous improvement must start at the top, not just verbally, but financially. Only when this philosophy has taken hold will we see a real difference in the food industry, both for organizations looking to improve their bottom lines, and for consumers who rely on quality in the food that they eat.



About The Author

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Matthew Kopecky

Matthew Kopecky is the product manager at Sparta Systems Inc., a provider of enterprise quality management and compliance solutions. Kopecky held numerous analyst and development positions at Johnson & Johnson Corp. before joining Sparta in 2004. He is a graduate of Drexel University College of Information Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in information systems technology.