ALL POSTHARVEST ROADS – LEARNING # 2
In terms of postharvest losses, estimates generated over the last five years (around 33%) are remarkably consistent with those of the 1960s, when the new discipline of quantifying postharvest losses burst into existence with its shocking statistics. The shameful levels of loss still being reported since 2010 are shocking not so much by their absolute values but by the desolate level of improvement that has been achieved over the intervening five decades.
What are the concrete steps we can take towards reducing losses? Whatever we have been doing on this front over the past 50 years clearly has not been working – something about it must be inherently hard!
There has been much debate about best practice methodology for estimating postharvest losses, driven largely, perhaps, by the huge uncertainties of losses in any particular batch of product. This uncertainty likely comes from a swag of big impact processes on levels of losses (a topic for another day). As a result, losses can vary hugely with different products, as successive harvests are taken from a given crop, as a season progresses, and with individual source and destination of the product.
As Drucker summarised it so economically: “What gets measured get managed” – so measurement will be a critical part of your process for addressing postharvest losses. Easy and robust methods to gauge losses can tell you how you are going in addressing losses. But measuring losses does not by itself fix the problem. And implementing today’s best practice postharvest technologies is only a step in the right direction. Rather, what distinguishes an outstanding postharvest handling system from the rest is that it does so much more than just delivering food.
High performing postharvest systems are also learning systems – they are capable of iterating themselves towards success using a tried and trusted, if naturally a little chaotic, process. That process is a BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN loop that delivers innovation focused on the specific needs of the situation in which the system operates. The BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN loop is a compressed version of the Kolb Learning Cycle, trimmed to minimalist perfection by the Lean Startup community. The beautiful thing about learning systems is that they contain what is needed to adapt themselves perfectly to the planetary niche that they occupy. In the case of food systems, they connect growers with consumers with a network of participants, each of whom learns how to play their key role in delivering high quality, valuable product to the next.
An effective Quality Management System is often the locus of learning within a food care system. Ideally held in one place, the quality management system becomes repository of information and driver of the BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN innovation loop. And, for this conference, that was my
Surprise realisation # 2: Food systems lack an effective mechanism for learning unless they are home to an effective quality management system.
For a smallholder with an open mind for learning, with all building, measuring and learning happening within their own mind, this could be a very efficient process. For larger systems, establishing a quality management system requires co-ordination and communication – every bit as important for the long term survival of a supply system as the short term delivery of product and return of income.
So, in attempts to reduce levels of postharvest losses, how about treating each improvement project as a “lean startup”, that targets a “minimum viable improvement”, linked with a “minimum viable quality management system” to spur and monitor progress? If the focus is on building the learning system, then step by step, cycle by cycle and season by season, performance should improve. If all roads lead to Rome, then all postharvest roads lead to a quality management system.
Are you interested in becoming an innovation leader who establishes a quality management system and iterates your whole food system, cycle by cycle, to success? What would be the attributes of an effective food care innovation leader? What might a blueprint for success in a challenged food system look like?