Managing flour quality is a rather complex process due to the many influencing factors and the length of the supply chain, all contributing to end use flour quality. In order to describe an approach to manage flour quality, we first must define quality and quality management. It is also important to note who is all involved in impacting flour quality through the supply chain. We will then look at supplier relationships and overall value through the supply chain.
According to Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary, there are 3-4 key phases to define quality and similarly in defining management. Thus, it is realistic that any of the manage definitions (to control, to exert, to direct, or to administer) could be matched with any of the quality definitions (essential character, distinguishing attribute, property, or degree or grade of excellence) and we would have a place to discuss and support in terms of flour quality. It should be noted that quality control has its own definition which fits in the points made above: maintenance of proper standards in manufactured goods.
Wheat is the largest crop produced in the world for human consumption and is the third largest crop in the United States. Wheat is truly a world crop, although the wheat may not cross every border and in the United States we import very little wheat, the conditions, practices, and decisions of farmers around the world play into each other and influence management practices from varieties developed to quantity grown to management practices, all of which impact end use product quality, even here in the United States.
SOME INDICATORS OF QUALITY BY DIFFERENT PARTIES IN THIS SUPPLY CHAIN (but by no means all inclusive)
Breeder – predictive results, marketable Miller – uniformity in processing consistency
Attributes, sustainability, improvement of performance, value
Producer – demand, consistency and Baker – consistency, value, safety, meeting
reliability, dependable source of expectations, on time
Elevator – uniformity / consistency, Consumer – consistency, value, meeting
demand, dependability expectations, wholesomeness, reputation
Common themes running through this list are: Meeting Expectations, Consistency, and Value.
Quality will definitely differ depending on your point of view, and the old adage “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” could not be truer than when you study the flour supply chain.
So then, what is flour quality? This is almost as elusive as defining quality. It depends on the application and the expectations. The same flour could be good, average, or bad, depending on suitability of use and the expectations of that baker into how it should and does perform. I see flour quality as being a general term describing how a flour meets the expectations and needs of a specific user for a specific purpose, and usually over a length of time. High quality will then exceed expectations, average quality meets expectations, and thus poor quality fails to meet the expectations of the end user.
What about consistency? Consistency is different than quality. It is a measure of sameness and quite often high quality flour will be consistent, and not surprisingly, end users want consistent high quality! From this point on we will consider consistency to be part of the overall quality discussion.
There are many factors that impact flour quality. I will not be able to list or address them all, but do want to try and paint a picture for how complex and dynamic this can be. Obviously wheat is important to flour quality, as it is the starting material, but then also how that wheat is transformed into flour, how the flour is handled prior to use, what product it is being used for, and of course the end users perception of how the flour should perform, all play into how good of quality the flour really is. The impact of the environment on quality is discussed in many circles, and I have heard the ratio of influence of environment over genetics range from 1 to 1 (50/50) to as high as 4 to 1 (80/20) which roll into observed variation in crop quality.
The differences in wheat and flour quality from year to year, or commonly called new crop, can be basically transparent or rather significant (e.g. back to back years with a 1.5 percent protein difference or 2+ percent absorption difference). These can play havoc in a bakery if they are not aware of the changes, or are not able to adjust within their capabilities to the changes.
Many things can influence the degree of difference once the crop is harvested. How consistent is the wheat blended, what are the origins of the wheat used for the blend, how consistent is the wheat handled at the mill, temper times the same, flow rates the same, stream equipment, etc. Then how do we handle the flour after milling? How fast do we get the flour to the bakery, is it always the same? What is the humidity? Does the flour lose significant amounts of moisture prior to use? Then there are bakery differences as well, is the bakery in startup after a shutdown, are they running hand-to-mouth on flour supply. Are they using one flour for several different applications, or is it just one line, one product? All of these will contribute to what is boiled down to flour quality.
Can we measure flour quality? Flour Quality is definitely another avenue with many side streets. I feel we can measure quality, and depending on the application, we could have a very good predictive measure. Unfortunately in some, and maybe most applications, we will only have a general guide as to how it will perform. Regardless, this is where specifications come in to play. Specifications are the documentation to drive towards consistency. Specifications are crucial, but they also need to be realistic and current. Specifications also need to be understood. Sometimes it is not the absolute number that is important, but the path taken to arrive at that number. Specifications also need to be flexible or updated enough to accommodate the changes from year to year.
Up to this point, we have talked about how complex the world of flour quality is, and it definitely is, but what can we do about it. The following will discuss an approach to making the world of flour quality, something that can be grasped and managed.
Working Within “the Circle”
In order to manage flour quality, there is a responsibility; to understand the dynamic inputs into wheat quality, flour quality, and product quality. Get involved in the supply chain from the breeder through the miller and baker and to the consumer, because it really is not a chain, but a circle. Get involved in your organization across functions, in quality, research, operations, sales and marketing. There is also another responsibility to communicate, both your needs and expectations. Criteria that are not known are much more difficult to meet, and expectations that are not known, are likely to not be satisfied.
Workloads are as busy as they ever have been, and that is unlikely to change. Many don’t feel they have time to develop relationships with their suppliers and customers. And even though it may be true that you save an hour or day now, it will potentially cost you days and weeks later, when a need arises. Developing relationships during the good times allows the bad times to go much better. Additionally if the supplier knows their customer’s business, they can better plan and manage the quality from their end as they can anticipate what is needed from the customer.
SOME LEARNINGS AND THOUGHTS
· Quality starts in the seed lab, ends with the consumer.
· Performance variation between varieties is greater than believed, and greater strides are being made on varieties than on environmental changes
· Environment is still very important and the most dominating factor
· All parties need to talk in the entire supply circle
· Value has to be understood and shared
· In order to effectively manage flour quality, there are several key points to be made:
· Understanding between supplier and customer
· Be involved outside of your immediate area
· Communicate expectations, expect to meet those expectations
· Develop relationships
However, never assume, as things change and you don’t want to be caught on the wrong side. These relationships also foster communication, which in turn drive understanding between the parties. I purposely have not been specific on supplier/customer here as it doesn’t matter what part of the supply “circle” you are in, it works in each step, and even across the circle (e.g. breeder – miller, etc.).
Most of us desire value in our relationships, in the flour supply circle; value can be driven by many things, such as long term supply relationships; trust and reliability and consistency, to name just a few. Additionally, what is valued, and maybe somewhat of a paradigm shift depending on where you and your organization are today, is the proactive flour supply relationship. Times have changed and will continue to change as I feel that cost is and, of course, will still be important, but value will drive sourcing decisions. A proactive approach in managing flour quality will save time in the long run and is less distracting from business goals than a reactive program.
Communication is perhaps the most important, yet under utilized tool in the flour supply circle!
Managing flour quality can be complex, however, break it down into simple pieces and focus on what you can influence, and make sure everyone understands those things you can’t control. A good relationship will involve some give and take, and at the end of the day, everyone has to gain some value out of the relationship, or it will not survive long term. It is important to know what you have, both in raw materials and in capabilities, and be careful about blending down to quality. Develop relationships— it is not a waste of time, in fact it will save you multiples of time invested. Take the time to know your customer, and take the time to know your supplier. Get involved in and understand all aspects of the supply circle, it will allow you to make better and faster decisions. Be proactive, and keep the mind set that every decision you make should be about improving consistency, and success will abound.
Say what you are going to do, do what you say, and back it up.