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Culture of quality, continuous improvement tools in the food industry

Culture of quality, continuous improvement tools in the food industry

In its September issue, ASQ’s Quality Progress addresses the importance of Quality in business culture.  The article references a white paper published by Forbes Insights:  Culture of Quality: Accelerating Growth and Performance in the Enterprise. The Forbes study, conducted in partnership with ASQ, reveals that world-class organisations successfully integrate quality into their business strategy to reap financial benefits and to be more innovative while providing a better working environment for their employees.  Leadership, customer-driven objectives, innovation, investment and incentives constitute key factors that characterise these quality-focused companies.

In the food industry, the quality control and quality assurance functions have seen their profiles increase in recent years. Stricter food law and regulations, increased consumer requirements and global market competition explain this trend. Through the use and deployment of quality principles and methodologies, companies better anticipate needs and meet expectations. Quality objectives do not only apply to product design and manufacturing but are also set for other operational activities such as procurement or supply chain management. Business performance is assessed following a continuous improvement model where product defects and process deviations are prevented and corrected. This business practice constitutes a departure from the inspection model that detects and eliminates defective materials post-production.  

A Canadian study1 published in 2009 identified the quality improvement tools commonly used in the food sector. Such tools include dashboard metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPI), HACCP-based Quality Systems and Lean Manufacturing. Six Sigma and Total Quality Management (TQM) form part of advanced continuous improvement methodologies that are based on Statistical Process Control (SPC). Food companies perceive continuous improvement as a strategic planning tool that requires project management skills, leadership and technical expertise. Despite the study’s small sample size (46 respondents in total), some interesting statistics are reported. Study results show that 50% of polled companies use at least one quality improvement tool and state that their motivations include realising safety and quality benefits and business improvements. Dashboard metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are the most common tools cited regardless of company size, business ownership type and product category. It’s worth noting that while the KPI metric is a tracking and reporting tool, it is not specifically designed to improve product or process quality. On the other hand, advanced quality improvement techniques requiring the use of statistics (control charts, process capability and performance studies) are favoured by medium to large organisations as well as publicly held companies. Companies which implement continuous improvement initiatives are also less likely to experience product recalls. Product category-wise, food processors are also 10% more likely to use structured quality improvement methods versus packers and distributors of non-processed foods.  

These results were compared to those of a similar study conducted in the US in 2006. South of the border, continuous improvement programs were much more prevalent with 37.1% of companies using Six Sigma versus 17.3% in Canada, 57.5% following lean manufacturing principles and 62.9% deploying TQM methodologies versus a combined 21.7% in Canada.

The top five reasons that were given by the Canadian food sector to justify the implementation of continuous improvement tools include:

1.       Reducing  the number of process and product variations

2.       Improving quality performance

3.       Reducing the risk of recalls

4.       Increasing plant productivity and efficiency

5.       Reducing rejected materials  

The study also makes the interesting observation that for 34.5% of respondents, HACCP is used as a continuous improvement solution. Proof of this trend can be seen in the popularity of HACCP-based quality and food safety management systems such as SQF or BRC. Earlier this year, the SQF Institute launched a new course titled Advanced SQF practitioner course. The 2-day continuous improvement workshop provides hands-on experience on applying quality tools such as Pareto analysis, Internal auditing, Corrective Action-Preventive Action (CAPA) and KPI’s.  The survey concludes that continuous improvement tools are an “integral component of business strategy” within the food sector in Canada.

As seen above, advanced continuous improvement methods based on SPC are not readily adopted in the food industry. A recent UK paper2 reports that Statistical Process Control application is 8 times more important in the global health care sector compared to the food sector. This paper looks at journal articles and summarises 30 years of SPC application and trends. Study results show that bakeries and dairy plants are the main users of SPC. Traditionally, SPC techniques are deployed in facilities that specialise in high-throughput packaging where processes must be closely monitored for performance and capability.3The food industry being also characterised by low margins, the need to produce “right first time” is critical and calls for process waste to be reduced. SPC becomes even more necessary when product price is high and packaging volumes increase. Net weights must be consistently monitored and kept within control limits to meet legal requirements and ensure business performance. Fill weights and other critical product measurements must also be controlled for optimum product quality and customer satisfaction.

More recently, SPC has found new applications. In the food safety field, it is integrated with HACCP for the validation and verification of Critical Control Points. SPC may also be integrated with Acceptance Sampling for inspection of raw materials as part of a supplier management program. Continuous improvement using SPC can be achieved through the use of Design of Experiments (DOE) where process parameters (factors) and product attributes (effects) are measured and correlated. Statistical Process Control results in products that are more consistent in their defined attributes. Besides net weights, some product applications include sensory attributes, colour or texture measurements and microbial counts.

The British study’s motivations for SPC implementation echo that of the Canadian study. Food safety control is also identified as one of the main reasons for use.

1.       23% reducing process variations

2.       13% improving food safety control

3.       13% increasing knowledge of process variation

The paper concludes by saying that SPC, when deployed and facilitated correctly, can generate significant benefits regarding process improvement and control and can therefore positively impact quality and business performance.      


1. Scott, B. S., Wilcock, A. E., & Kanetkar, V. (2009). A survey of structured continuous improvement programs in the canadian food sector. Food Control, 20(3), 209-217.

2. Lim, S. A. H., Antony, J., & Albliwi, S. (2014). Statistical process control (SPC) in the food industry – A systematic review and future research agenda. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 37(2), 137.

3. Grigg, N. P. (1998). Statistical process control in UK food production: An overview. International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management, 15(2), 223-238.

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