How can a Minimum Viable Product approach work in food innovation

My interpretation of a Minimum Viable Product(MVP). A MVP is a prototype that requires the least possible effort, the smallest financial expenditure and the smallest production run required to produce a stimulus that is adequate to test a specific assumption about a new market or new product.

A minimum viable product gets enough polish so that testers have a realistic experience. But not so much polish that it could be launched tomorrow.

For example, if you are launching a new Berry infused chocolate bar, you might test the assumption 'I have the perfect flavour intensity for the berry note'. To do so, you wouldn't spend much time on perfecting the shape or weight of the finished good, just the flavour intensity.

We all know the tech space is comfortable launching beta versions of new software, getting their MVP out there and testing the consumer appeal for these products. How well does the food industry do?

From my experience, we aren't great at this, but we are getting better. When I first started work at Uncle Tobys (many moons ago) we show our products for consumer feedback, worried that someone might steal our idea. Instead we'd have the R&D team perfect a product before going to full scale consumer testing with 200 consumers, essentially crossing our fingers that somehow we'd got lucky and fluked a product that consumers actually liked.

Now my approach has changed. Most big questions in an NPD process could benefit from some form of consumer input. Using the cycle of:

  1. Here is an idea,

  2. Lets quickly test it in a small group with a bench top sample.

  3. How'd it go, what did they think,

  4. Do we continue to perfect this product or pivot to another new opportunity.

Too few companies allow the R&D team to run the development of new products, but this is a topic for another day. Often R&D teams are eager to change if it is based on data, not on a whim. The look to improve their products and most keen to rise to the challenge of creating products that are successful on shelf. This kind of thinking would fir perfectly with a MVP approach, a great addition to their current processes.

Here is how it could flow:

Goal - Launch a new moulded Chocolate with a soft filling
Assumption 1 - Consumers want a dark chocolate. Prototype. Test. Learn.
Assumption 2 - Consumers want this snack to be healthy. Ask them.
Assumption 3 - Consumer want a fruit flavoured filling. Are you sure, ask them, present samples, is it too sweet?
Assumption 4 - Consumers want this to be a single bite serve. How big is too big? Or to small?
Assumption 5 - Consumers love sea shell shaped moulded chocolates. Why not other animals or plants or geometric shapes?

By breaking the overall goal into smaller assumptions, these can then be quickly tested. Unconventional testing methods are available for testing flavour, fit to concept and liking of specific product components - just ask you Consumer Insight team.

Get your developer on board early. As the testing uncovers new learnings, product developers can roll these learnings into subsequent formulations. These learnings start to form the building blocks of the product, defining the product as you go, solidifying product attributes that become non negotiable - because it is what the consumer wants. How do we know? We've asked them.

From my perspective, this iterative, MVP approach to product development makes a lot more sense that plucking an idea out of thin air, spending hours formulating in the lab, scaling up once the CEO or Sales Manager likes the flavour of it, barging in on production time to run a trial and then heading to Consumer Testing with your fingers crossed....

Is NPD for the food industry just like any other startup?

Often when someone mentions the term 'startup' I think of the tech space - a small web development team in a dimly lit room smashing out code as quickly as possible. Some organisation designing and beta testing their latest app with trendsetters.

How different is this to the new product development in the food industry? Are there opportunities to learn from the tech startups that can be reapplied to traditional R&D teams? Until now, I would have been skeptical and thought they are poles apart. We have middle management to impress, large machinery on long runs that can't be interrupted and technical challenges and stringent regulations that computer geeks wouldn't even be able to Google. However all that changed when I started listening to the audiobook, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

Eric starts by clearly defining what he sees as a startup:

A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty - Eric Ries

With such a broad definition of what a startup is,  I started to the think 'Yep, R&D teams for every food manufacturer I know do this'. And with this concession I opened up to the possibility of learning from how a tech start up operates. As I listened to the book, I heard great examples of processes and principles that would apply directly to what we do as developers and food techs.

Our challenges are similar (not enough money, not enough time, too much steering from external forces), but the methodology and process we can use hone a product specifically for a customer are (or could be) remarkably similar

  • - Test/Measure/Learn

  • - Principles of Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

  • - Validated Learning

  • - Applying the Toyota principles of LEAN manufacture to NPD setting

Each of these principles would fit nicely and bring tremendous speed and value New Product Development process. Over the next few posts I will explain these in further detail and give examples of how using them will benefit you.

Could food innovation benefit from a Lean Start Up approach?

Over the recent break, I went for a drive. And not a short drive either. I drove to Perth. It took 38 hours in the drivers seat to cover just over 3600km. Needless to say there was some time to kill.

I had prepared for this trip by downloading an audiobook called The Lean Start Up, by Eric Rimes. This book outlines the steps start-ups need to take to become more innovative,  stop wasting peoples time and be more successful.

leanstartup

leanstartup

I recently promised myself to write more, and one way to do this is to share learnings from thing I read, work that I am involved in or observations of the industry. I hope to provide some gems of information, food for thought and thought for food. I allow myself no more than 20 minutes to write each post and no more than 10 minutes to edit and rephrase before I post.

So, follow along as I see how appropriate a Lean Start Up approach is for todays food industry!