Cross-functional team members are assumed to bring different perspectives to the product development process. A new question in our survey this year asked whether processors think there are benefits or hindrances when working in a team atmosphere.
Those surveyed were divided over the question whether cross-functional teams are successful with new products only if they have a common incentive plan. Two-thirds agreed and one-third disagreed.
But the nearly 200 additional comments we received to this query shined a light on some typical -- and not so typical -- pros and cons of the entire teamworking model.
"The benefits are that four heads are better than one," says Debbie Rihs, quality assurance manager for Don's Food Products (www.donssalads.com), Schwenksville, Pa. "No one person has all the answers, and a team of different disciplines helps you avoid costly mistakes. It also provides different perspectives that may help the creative process in looking at a new item."
"A cross-functional team allows you to call out issues in product development early on," stresses the associate marketing manager for a large frozen food company. "If you don't bring finance, operation or procurement, etc., into the game early, and rely only on marketing and R&D, a lot of problems usually arise. You need operations to let you know if it's feasible for the company to process the product or if you need to look into co-packing. Finance needs to look to see if a profit can made. Everyone's role is important in product development."
Putting the "cons" succinctly, Betty Jo Steel, president of Steel's Gourmet Foods (www.steelsgourmet.com) Bridgeport, Pa., says "Marketing [might] see opportunity in a category; R&D may find it uninspiring. Consensus within a team can help everyone, but it can also blunt creativity."
"The benefit allows specific departmental team members to understand the larger scope of the project in terms of both development and impact," wrote the technical director of a development lab. "One hindrance is the challenge of ensuring each department continues to maintain the broad perspective throughout the discussion."
"The volume of group development input is greater," noted one respondent, "but it takes longer to finish a project with so many different ideas. Yet we do end up with a better product."
Praising the cross-functional model, Robin Robinson, vice president of marketing for Bell-Carter Foods Inc. (www.bellcarter.com), Lafayette, Calif., notes, "Teams reduce [the chances of missing] key executional elements; issues are identified by experts in specific areas. Ideas are better defined and products are ultimately better with diverse groups involved."
"The benefits far outweigh the hindrances," lauds Scott Selman, director of operations for Traditions Meal Solutions (www.traditionsi.com), a frozen and shelf-stable meals manufacturer in Jackson, Miss. "By having a cross-functional team in place at the beginning of the product development process, all parties are on the same page and know the goal. Each function needs to have input and then needs to make sure their part of the process is delivered. This approach can predict issues with functions that a single R&D team might miss."
Many respondents tendered valuable tips for smoother operation of cross-functional teams: "You must limit the amount of feedback and number of people for each phase of the product development stage," said one. "They must be led by the proper individual," said a second. A third noted that such teams "need a system and process for the meetings all parties need to agree to the process. [Teams provide a] broad base for information hindrances. Someone needs to decide and own it, and everyone needs to buy in. Otherwise, you can second-guess things to death."
So, where do our processors turn for information and help in identifying new product ideas once product development goals have been set? In the 2005 and 2006 surveys, about 40 percent and more than 50 percent, respectively, gleaned information and help from their suppliers -- either in addition to or instead of relying on internal research.
This year, processors are also relying on the standard input from customers, competitors and industry journals in the research stage of research and development. Of course, sometimes it just takes good old-fashioned legwork: One respondent answered that he gets ideas for new products from "what we see or do not see in the marketplace, grocery or club stores."
Another source of info from outside continues a developing trend of the past few years – that of outsourcing. More than a quarter of respondents said they use an external product development company to help them identify new product ideas after setting their product development goals.
And we can't forget our colleagues. "Many times we are reacting to competitive pressures or attempting to improve functionalities not present in a competitive offering," reminded one respondent. Moreover, well over half – 56 percent – of those surveyed noted they use suppliers as an important source of information and help for identifying new-product ideas.
In early June we sent survey links to Food Processing and Wellness Foods readers who hold administrative and R&D titles. The 324 respondents included vice presidents of research and/or R&D, research directors, directors of quality control/assurance, marketing directors and management.
Some of the responses included verbatim comments, plus personal interviews were conducted with those who provided specific information. In all cases where individuals were quoted by name, permission was secured. As with all Food Processing surveys, all personal information is kept strictly confidential and is used only for research purposes.
I read it in a magazine
"We produce sugar-free and low-sugar, high-end products for diabetics, dieters, heart patients and healthy eaters. For the past 15 years we have relied on trade journals and ingredient suppliers to help us use cutting-edge ingredients to achieve our nutritional and taste objectives. Sweeteners have been one of our challenges, as have gums, pectins, fiber products (inulin, fat substitutes, etc.).
"Our foray into organics created special challenges: As a small company, we brainstorm for ideals of products that our end customers need. We then do R&D with small recipes, using a variety of ingredients and from classic recipes. When it looks and tastes right, we scale up three times- 5-10 gallons, 40 and 80 gallons. We adjust, settle on a taste, run the nutritionals on the computer and, if they are acceptable, we send samples to the lab.
"We settle on packaging and labels and try to send samples to key customers for their reaction. If it is positive, we move forward. Combining organic and sugar-free in one product was a mistake a year ago. Today, it has worked out to great functional and market advantage.
"We have often been ahead of market trends in the diet food category. Our assumption was always that diet foods should be trendy, gourmet and taste great. 'Big food' has not yet fully embraced the idea of expensive ingredients and great flavor in this category. Thus, there are low expectations that must be overcome by the small innovative companies."
- Betty Jo Steel, Steel's Gourmet Foods, Bridgeport, Pa.