In a recent straw poll of clients and colleagues, I discovered that on average they spent only half a day a month working on innovation projects. That’s only 6 days a year and I can’t think of any real step changing innovations that have been delivered with so little resource, but with ever-decreasing margins the food industry operates with lean structures and often the responsibility for innovation is allocated in addition to day-to-day responsibilities.

But the life of a food technologist is a busy one, the industry moves at fast pace and as a result we have become experts in problem solving at speed! Given this trait it can be tempting to jump head-first into the first innovation project that comes your way. But in order to solve a problem, first you must find it and rushing into solutions can completely miss the point.

In order to solve a problem, first you must find it

In order to find problems, the first thing you must do is slow down! Take a step back and really think about what innovation means. Innovation is all about creating value – this value can be for the consumer and/or for the business. Although it is the innovative product launches that attract media attention this is not the only way to add value. It is important to remember that the focus for innovation does not only have to be on a finished product; it can be a process, raw material, configuration or way of working. The results can deliver value internally and/or externally.

So take the time to review your business, products and operations in order to identify areas where innovation may deliver the most rewarding results. Although the rest of this post focusses on the more operational elements this is only one element of the analytical rigour that must accompany the problem finding process. In order to present a really rounded problem-finding process it must also include overlaying other aspects such as consumer insights and financial analysis of the business.

Ask lots of questions

Think about the key questions that you are routinely challenged to solve in your business. I use a list of questions as an aid-memoir for this process that I have added below. They work best when every question is asked in turn. Remember to capture all answers – there is no such thing as a bad answer as anything might trigger a new idea or thought process. Feel free to add questions to suit your needs.

Alternative approaches include the ‘what if…’ question which can be applied to any stage of the operation. For example ‘what if we were able to remove the bottleneck in the operation’ which can encourage further discussion and generate more ideas.

This initial process will allow you to anchor any future innovation to a clearly defined problem that you are trying to solve. But it is only the first stage in the problem finding process.

What is the root cause of the problem?

Finding the root cause of the problem you’ve outlined can really help guide you towards the underlying issues that need to be addressed. There are many techniques for getting to the root cause but my favourite is to use the ‘5 whys’ where you repeat the question ‘why?’ five times in application to each previous answer. I have outlined a highly simplified example of this below which explores failure to meet on-shelf availability targets for nectarines:







In this example there are many areas that can be explored further – whether it is the longer term procurement plan as to where to source nectarines from, or whether it is to develop technology to identify and remove contaminated nectarines from the supply chain. It is up to the business to combine and review the information gathered and identify patterns or areas for further investigation.

So what next?

DON’T RUSH IT! Take your time; debate; agree; disagree but focus and try to link the challenge to a key business measure – if you can link it to sales, profitability or complaints then you will start to create a business case as to why you are spending your time working in this area. This will create a compelling reason for allocation of resource or investment when you are ready to ask your business leaders for it.
Look through the problems that you have found. Group them and prioritise them to work out which are most worthwhile either in generating short or long term value for the business. What will give the best return for your business? Only once you have truly defined the problem should you move onto researching and brainstorming solutions so that you can really start generating your innovation agenda, which will detail the projects that you have selected to address the problem.
As Einstein once said: “If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining it and 5 minutes solving it.” Genius.