‘Suppliers are starting to respond to demand’: How lean thinking can cut food waste and boost efficiency

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Lean management tools can build sustainable supply chains, study finds ©iStock
Lean management tools can build sustainable supply chains, study finds ©iStock
The application of ‘lean thinking’ manufacturing and management strategies can help reduce waste and build more efficient supply chains, according to new research.

Lean thinking is a management philosophy originally coined by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their study of how the Toyota production system. In essence, the aim is to develop a more effective enterprise by aligning customer and employee satisfaction and engaging with employees to identify and reduce waste at every level of an operation.

For around a decade, experts have suggested that lean thinking could afford the opportunity to build a more sustainable food system, with much research focusing on red meat production.

In a newly released study, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production​, researchers from Brunel University in the UK concluded that lean management can also be applied to agricultural production.

From the field up: Integrating supply chains

For the first time, the researchers used lean principles to factor in the larger landscape, looking from field level up at forward integrated supply chains for fruit.

The international research team tracked four large South African apple and pear growers trading as two separate co-ops in the Western Cape’s Ceres and Elgin districts. The aim was to understand how growers modify practices to bolster productivity and sustainability as international and local fresh fruit suppliers.

The two co-ops both operate forward integrated supply chains spanning cold storage, packing packaging, transport, marketing and sales.

All four growers supplying the co-ops aimed to bring in new practices and technologies to maximise yield, reduce food waste and use resources more efficiently, the researchers noted. A risk averse attitude meant they tended to introduce innovations on an informal ‘try it first, see if it works’ basis. “This created in a system highly integrated with traditional farming and neat at reducing waste,”​ the study found.

Talk to your stakeholders

The researchers concluded that lean thinking can be used to streamline production processes, improve the effectiveness of the supply chain, increase profitability and cut food waste. The application of these principles also improves the environmental footprint of fruit production and distribution, the researchers noted, by reducing resource usage.

“One key finding is that growers need to talk to their stakeholders more,”​ explained Dr Manoj Dora, director of large collaborative projects and outreach at Brunel Business School in London.

“In the past, these farmers just kept producing endlessly, which caused a lot of waste and led to considerable losses of money. But now, incorporating lean management methods into their day-to-day operations, suppliers are starting to respond to demand.

“The study highlights how we adjust lean to the particular agricultural sector… If a car company can use it, then why can’t it help farmers become more efficient too?”

Pull rather than push production

Marrying up production with consumer demand – or using pull, rather than push production – is a key challenge facing food producers.

Growers tackled this with a forward contracting process. This saw buyers put in initial orders a year ahead, then cementing the final figures a few weeks before the delivery date.

Adjusting the shape, height and widths of rows of trees is another innovation that cut waste and tractor use and made picking more productive, the study noted.

Expanding the customer base can also have benefits that make it easier for producers to balance supply and demand.

“Only six or seven years ago we were exporting to sixty-four countries,”​ one of the growers reported. “Now we export to more than one hundred countries. Yes, this can be complex, but it is also beneficial. Some clients might order less than planned for, whilst others may order more, the diversity of the portfolio helps to balance things out in the end.”

While lean thinking can boost efficiency in agri-food, Dora added that the process is “not straightforward​” and requires “continuous adjustment and improvement"​.

“Where we see variations in seasonality, weather conditions, soil, moisture – how do we adjust for all those contingency factors?”


Source: Journal of Cleaner Production

"Determining Factors Driving Sustainable Performance Through the Application of Lean Management Practices in Horticultural Primary Production"

Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.08.170

Authors: Darian Pearce, Manoj Dora, Joshua Wesana, Xavier Gellynck

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