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The current situation (uncertainty as a result of the global pandemic and trade renegotiations) has highlighted the need for businesses in all industries to become more agile. Once, you could get away with generally knowing where you stand as a business and use that as your foundation for growth. Now, you need a 360-degree view of your business before you start planning for your future.

In other words, you need complete visibility. But what does ‘visibility’ mean to the food industry? And how can you ensure complete visibility over your food supply chain?

3 steps to food supply chain visibility

Food supply chain visibility

1. Access your information

This is the first step to achieving visibility. Here are some questions you should be asking:

  • Can I see it?
  • How quickly can I access information whether I’m remote or on-site?
  • Is it real time or yesterday’s information?
  • Can I get all I need from one source? 

I spoke to Lee Walker, one of our Business Consultants and Lean Six Sigma practitioner, about this topic to get his insight. He says:

“In my career, the amount of times I’ve walked into a room and there are three people huddled around a screen or piece of paper, arguing about how much stock is there, should be there or isn’t there.

“The first thing I do is pick them up, walk them out into the store and ask them to review what’s physically there.”

This is the backup option for many businesses when they’re struggling with visibility of any part of their operations, from inventory to asset maintenance - to go and physically see it. But going forwards, you might not be able to do that, thanks to the COVID-19 crisis. We can no longer rely on bits of paper or filing cabinets anymore. 

This is where the trend to more digital ways of working comes in and it's been underway for years. Customer requirements are pushing this. Employees are pushing this. Consumers are pushing this. 

I’m sure every one of you has either seen or taken part in a survey asking: would you like to work from home, in the office or a bit of both?”.  This just goes to show the trend is not temporary! 

But even if you're based on site, it shouldn’t mean that you're exempt from digital transformation. You need to be able to access all your information at the touch of a button, whether it's on the laptop, your tablet or your phone. 

Digital systems, such as ERP, provide remote access to real time data on a multitude of devices. 

This brings us to the next step…

2. Ensure the information you access is accurate

How to boost inventory visibility

So, you can access the data you need but how accurate is your data? For example, it’s no use being able to see how much stock you have if that information’s out of date or incorrect. This highlights the importance of being able to access real-time data.

That data also needs to be the truth. In other words, it must accurately reflect the real state of play if you're to make the right decisions for your business. Time and accuracy are easily lost in convoluted capture systems. Information bends to fit the capture model and can lose some integrity. 

Lee told me: "I remember at an onion factory where after an ERP implementation, the waste levels appeared to be much higher than they were previously.

"This was seen as a failure of the implementation until it was realised that the problem was that the previous waste numbers were incorrect, and they were now seeing the true information for the first time."

So what does this mean? There's a big difference between not liking the data and that data actually being wrong. 

"It’s very important that when you do have potentially incorrect data coming through the system, you don’t just change it to the answer that you want," Lee advises. "You have to actually go back to the source, understand what the problem is and fix the capture process, not the data."

We don’t want to end up making bad decisions sit’s important to make sure that the capture mechanisms are as close to the actions as they can possibly be and that they are flexible enough to record what is actually happening not a predefined model. 

ERP systems are designed to capture precisely what happens as it happens. 

3. Focus on the right information

If you can access the information you require and you’re certain that the data’s accurate, you now must be sure that you’re looking at is what actually needs your attention.

An example that Lee likes to use as a reference point is a large washroom area at an apply business that used to have eight admin clerks before their digital transformation. After the transformation, the admin clerks no longer needed to manually pull up data. Activities can be closely monitored as they happen. 

Just like the onion waste example, an ERP system can provide a huge amount of information and the raw version of that can be daunting or confusing at first. So, to be able to focus on what you need, it’s very important that you also have a reporting and analysis strategy alongside your ERP strategy

This will help you home in on what is important and where the issues are. The same systems will also give you an understanding as to how your corrective actions are doing.

How to always ensure complete visibility over your food supply chain

The three above steps ensure you have a 360-degree view of your food supply chain. But how can you ensure you always have this level of visibility? Embrace the switch to non-paper methods of data collection and management.

Our Business Consultant Lee reckons it’s important for the industry to start embracing digitalisation. “When you really take your info through a digital process, especially if it’s automated, you’ll start to capture the truth,” he says.

Thankfully, the industry was already slowly shifting from paper to non-paper (though there are still some people who are sceptical with regards to digitalisation). The current uncertain times have only emphasised and accelerated the need to do so.

Digital transformation in food industry

According to Lee, the businesses that had digitalised at least some part of their operations won’t have been as impacted by the recent changes in the business landscape as the ones who hadn’t. “They sent people home and they just picked up and carried on what they were doing,” he says.

By that, we mean workers could continue to monitor their operations and assets remotely. And if they’d implemented automation, businesses would require fewer workers to operate the machinery, thus making it easier to comply with social distancing requirements.

The current climate demands more visibility than paper can give us

Before COVID-19, businesses could get away with kind of knowing where they are and where they want to get to. That knowledge was enough to help you figure out what the next jump should be.

But now, things are changing so fast that we have no idea what the next turn might be. Lee thinks it might be better for businesses to have a complete and true understanding of where they are.

He says: “That will serve as a foundation to any further improvements where you may (or may not) know what that improvement has to be.”

Want to discover more insights about how the food and drink industry, manufacturers in particular, can ensure their operations are prepared to thrive during this uncertain time? On 20 October 2020, Lee and two more industry experts shared their advice on a webinar, discussing how food and drink manufacturers can battle the challenges of coronavirus restrictions, Brexit, climate change, extreme weather conditions and more.

Check out the video here and watch it on demand.

Is your food business following best practices?

When you're following best practices, you're using the best recommended ways of working to exceed your business needs. If you stay up-to-date with the methodologies followed by market leaders, you can stay competitive. 

But how do you know which approaches are worth following and whether your business has adopted them properly? We have something that may help.

The ColumbusFood Best Practice Assessment can help you identify where you might be falling behind and help you to regain that competitive advantage. Read more about it below.

Find out more about the assessment

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