Six Sigma Approach for Agri-Food Sector

Nowadays, farms compete on the market less on the basis of price and more on the basis of their ability to design original products or improve the quality management of their production (World Bank, 2007).

Understanding the quality practices in food processing requires taking into account how the consumer, the nature of food, and the regulatory environment interact to affect the industry (Hung and Sung, 2011). So, in order to achieve a successful objective, the firm has to reach market opportunities with innovations and retain them with the quality of products and services.

Within the integrated approach of total quality management (TQM) (Wiklund and Wiklund, 2002), the most widely applied program is Six Sigma, an approach aimed to meet consumer satisfaction (Leea et al., 2009; Antony, 2008) by avoiding defects and by reducing waste and costs (Fiore et al., 2015). The expression six sigma means the absence of errors, in statistical terms, reducing dispersion so that the probability of finding products and services that are not in conformity with the desired standard is practically zero—3.4 defects per million. In this sense, the Six Sigma approach identifies the philosophy and methods to eliminate defects from products and processes. Six Sigma is a problem-solving tool; it uses data, measurements, and statistics in order to identify the crucial factors that significantly decrease waste and defects, while reaching market opportunites and increasing customer satisfaction and product value.

The key point of this management method is the highest attention to customer expectations: It is not enough to satisfy the quality standards. The firm must delight the customer, anticipating and fulfilling the customer's wishes. The statistical tools are focused on quality management through two submethodologies: DMAIC (Define-Measure- Analyze-Improve-Control) and DMADV (Define-Measure-Analyze-Design-Verify) (Linderman et al., 2003).

In DMAIC, firms must do the following:

  • 1) Define (D): To identify customers, their priorities, the essential elements for quality
  • 2) Measure (M): To determine how to measure the process and performance
  • 3) Analyze (A): To determine the most probable causes of defect and understand them
  • 4) Improve (I): To identify the ways to remove the causes of defects
  • 5) Control (C): To determine how to maintain the improvements

In literature, there are many studies which developed and deepened the total quality topic and its relations with the Six Sigma: Zu et al. (2008) has studied the role of Six Sigma in quality management theory and its influence on the quality management application; Swink and Jacobs (2012) studied the operational impacts of Six Sigma program adoptions; while Shafer and Moeller (2012) analyzed the impact of adopting Six Sigma on corporate performance. Jacobs et al. (2015) analyzed the operating performances effect of early compared to late adoption of Six Sigma process improvement, which is useful for decision making regarding the timing of Six Sigma adoption.

As a business method for deleting defects, Six Sigma also works well in the food industry (Hung and Sung, 2011). Some authors have explored how a food company in Taiwan used an efficient approach to move toward the purpose of Six Sigma quality level (ibidem); other scholars investigated the Six Sigma methodology as a quality initiative to improve the critical logistical measures within SMEs food distributors (Shokri et al., 2014), while others showed the possibilities of continuous quality improvement in the food industry (Kovach and Cho, 2011).

In effect, a change in food quality process moves toward team-oriented quality management methods such as hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) and Six Sigma, which are gaining special importance (Schutz et al., 2014). For example, the Six Sigma approach was applied to analytical data taken from the EuroFIR (European Food Information Resource) that aimed to exploit food composition information, and at harmonization standards to improve data quality, storage, and access (Castanheira et al., 2011).

Unfortunately, the implementation of Six Sigma in the food industry is still limited, but an example related to a dairy firms successfully implementing Six Sigma comes from Glanbia Food, which in Ireland processes about 1.4 billion liters of milk annually into butter, cheese, milk proteins, and whey derivatives.

A dairy farm is a complex and highly integrated set of systems; indeed, dairy farming is characterized by the combination of plant and animal production within one farming system (Hilhorst et al., 2001). Actually, the margins in dairy sector have been eroding for several decades; so the Six Sigma approach can be a crucial tool for making efficient use of market opportunities.

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