June 26, 2013
By Tim Sonntag and Eric Putnam, Contributing Editors
The world of food manufacturing and the laboratories that support it have become very complex, with seemingly endless challenges. Though there are clearly many hurdles that are unique to production labs versus manufacturing operations, they do share many of the same challenges. We all have to deal with lack of resources while meeting ever-challenging goals. And we still need to do it in an efficient way that allows the company to prosper.
Not long ago, if operations needed analysis performed they would just send it to the lab." Current demands call for many different types of analyses at multiple segments of the production flow. It is not uncommon for producers to have a QC lab, as well as multiple R&D labs. Quite often, specialty labs, such as an instrument-driven analytical/troubleshooting lab, support these more mainstream labs. Nowadays, production still sends it to the lab, but which lab is the right lab? Will the chosen lab have the proper direction, common goals and resources?
What can be said about having enough resources? At times, a lab director can feel like she is running a marathon in which the finish line is constantly being moved ahead. Who in this fast-paced industry ever has enough resources? Be it time, money, qualified people or the right equipment, it never seems like enough. What many lab leaders dont often realize is they may have many of the same resource needs as the other labs. For example, the analytical lab may need extra help to perform titrations. Although this may not be enough demand to warrant the hire of a full-time tech, perhaps the quality lab has a need for "half of a tech" to do organoleptic testing or set up LODs. The company could hire a tech and split the time between the two labs. What if the analytical lab needed a new state-of-the-art piece of equipment for sensory evaluation? Could the purchase of what is undoubtedly a very costly piece of technology be better justified in the eyes of the budget patrol if the instrument was aiding in the mission of not only the analytical lab but also the Quality and R&D labs? Many times, the best way to meet the challenge of low resources is through a united front. This can be accomplished when the labs get together and form synchronous goals.
We all have goals in one form or another. But, many times, we have a hard time reaching them. More often than not, there is some other person or group within the organization who has the same or similar tools we need to help us reach our goals. We just need to know who it is and in what way that symbiotic relationship can be put into action. A lab director can often increase his success, decrease redundancy and maximize already low resources by the use of cooperative strategic planning. One useful strategy he can employ is the use of cross-functional teams, such as steering committees, management-of-change teams and work cells. These types of teams allow for all involved to work on meshing their priorities, goals and resources together to create a mutually beneficial relationship while avoiding those dreaded silos of information. Cross-functionals" also allow for the avoidance of wasteful redundancy by allowing all involved to be up-front with what is most important to keep their cog in the company machine synchronized and moving.
Another beneficial tool that keeps all the many labs on the same page and working at their greatest efficiency and comfort is the use of structured and auditable management systems. The principles of systems like ISO 9001:2008, FSSC 22000 and SQF are not just useful for production, food safety and quality issues. Structured systems like these are also built to keep entire organizations on the same page. This is accomplished by adherence to standards of document control, top-down management commitment and management of change. When a company commits to one of these systems, including the labs, it allows for all to communicate and work toward a unified goal, thus overcoming many of the obstacles often encountered.
With common goals, shared vision, communication and a well-structured management system, the many, various labs in todays food production facilities can make the most of the ever-changing and rigorous demands of the industry.
Tim Sonntag is vice president, quality & technical services, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI. Eric Putnam is Wixon food safety, quality and training systems manager. For more information, go to wixon.com.
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