The Pursuit of Imperfection

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One of the widely accepted guiding principles of lean thinking is to “pursue perfection”. This is rather broad and imprecise when compared to the other guidelines of identify value, map value streams, flow and pull. Pursue perfection can be interpreted to mean striving for a process or condition that is safe and wast-free, has high-quality output, with fast or on-demand delivery of service, without overburden on people, all of which leads to low costs. When this pursuit is paired with a strong focus on the customer, it leads to good things, such as a sustainably profitably business. But what if the pursuit of perfection itself generates more waste? This unintended consequence that happens in a very real way in the daily lives of the great majority of people who live in the developed world.

It is estimated that a third or more of food is wasted between the start and the end of the modern food supply chain. The amount wasted differs by type of food, for produce it may be as high as half. In the United States alone, each year six billion pounds or 20% of farm produce is wasted because the shape, size or color is judged to be imperfect. When foods do not meet our standards of visual beauty, they never make it market and are thrown out. (Oddly, we do not throw out artwork that fails to meet our nutritional standards.) This wasted produce has consumed labor, water and fertilizer to grow, more labor and fuel to transport, more energy and labor to warehouse, and finally more energy to transport to the garbage dump, where it will be converted into methane, a greenhouse gas which we don’t exactly need more of. If this were simply a matter of correcting for overproduction or defects, it would be simpler to solve. But this is a problem of poor standards, poor understanding of true customer needs, and a lack of initiative to utilize a valuable yet wasted resource. Happily, there are an increasing number of businesses and organizations finding for ways to end food waste.

Imperfect Produce is a startup that delivers less-than-perfect but perfectly good produce from farm to your door at a 30% lower price, in the San Francisco bay area. The founders Ben Simon and Ben Chesler previously launched the Food Recovery Network in 2011 with the aim of reducing food waste from campus dining halls. This venture succeeded in recovering 700,000 pounds of food from 150 college campuses. Imperfect Produce delivers good food at a lower price, provides income for local farmers and reduces food waste – everyone wins. However, the current product on offer from Imperfect Product is still a “push” rather than a “pull”. The customer signs up for delivery, and it is up to the producer to decide what selection of fruits and vegetables will be delivered. This is understandable as a startup product. It is a very simple business model since the customer does not have the ability to create complexity by selecting 1 egg plant, 2 lemons, 5 apples and a bunch of kale, etc. and something different the following week. Perhaps this level of customization is in their future.

It is necessary to match supply to demand. A good portion of the food waste happens between the refrigerator and the garbage bin at the consumer’s home. People buy food with the intent of eating it, but often more than they will actually eat before the food spoils. In an informal sampling of friends and family about whether they would buy a box of produce from Imperfect Foods, I was surprised at the resistance due to the perceived loss of choice. If a customer doesn’t eat eggplant, regardless of whether they are perfect or imperfect, they don’t wan them in the box. A business can try to change customer behavior, but may have more success by first deeply understanding the reasons for their behavior. It is interesting that while lean management espouses the pursuit of perfection, starting up a new business often requires pursuing (as in identifying and exploiting) imperfections. Whenever customers are being imperfectly served, there is a business opportunity. In the case of Imperfect Produce, it is not clear that the venture has truly identified an unmet customer need it can exploit. How much demand is there for produce delivered by push for a 30% discount? Ugly food does not have a distribution problem, it has a marketing problem. Marketing is the art and science of creating demand. For this solution to succeed, consumers must want to buy oddly-shaped produce. In order to make a meaningful and lasting positive impact on the food waste problem, as with any problem, it needs to be looked at from the customer’s perspective, followed end-to-end with an understanding of cause-and-effect of decisions made at each step. Addressing the problem of food waste goes back to demand management – how we select what to put on our dining tables. Ugly produce must become cool.

As the food waste example shows, in the pursuit of perfection, it is very important not be be blinded by our own beliefs about “perfection”. What is perfection? In the case of food, is it probably some combination of appearance, taste availability and price? What does it mean to pursue perfection in the food supply chain? The danger here is that after we have satisfied our standard for availability, taste and price, we push the envelope to breaking point, demanding visually perfect food in such a way that creates waste. It is unlikely that humans will agree on the definition of perfection when it comes to something so literally connected to taste as food. Perhaps instead of perfection, we should pursue purpose? After all, what is the purpose of food?