Working with suppliers around the world, Farbest Brands distributes natural ingredients such as vitamins, sweeteners and dairy and plant proteins to companies in the food, beverage and nutritional products industries. So while you might not have bought a Farbest branded product, chances are you've consumed something with a Farbest ingredient.
As the hub of a big wheel, the New Jersey company has a lot of information on its distributed products, but had long kept all that information on spreadsheets in a network of electronic folders. With the company already finding it difficult to manage all of that data, an impending government regulation threatened to be a recipe for disaster.
The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, as the name implies, aimed to improve food safety with a series of rules to oversee how foods are grown, harvested and processed. Among its provisions was that the FDA would have access to records at companies like Farbest Brands' customers. That meant Farbest Brands would also have to be ready to hand over its data. Compliance wouldn't be required until 2016, seemingly giving Farbest Brands time to get its files in order.
But it turned out five years wasn't enough time. Three different teams of employees vetted content management systems in 2015, and each recommended three different products. It was back to the drawing board when Shakirul Alom joined Farbest Brands in 2016 as a quality assurance and compliance manager. He had to find a system or otherwise the company would run the risk of not fulfilling a customer request to see the records behind an ingredient. The FDA and, in turn, a customer, could need as a many as 30 different documents.
Taming the documentation monster
"We have a global network of suppliers, and we have a national customer base which also sells into these international markets," Alom said recently. "Combining the new regulations with all the information we have for suppliers and customers, we recognized the amount of documentation would increase exponentially." He added: "Everything was across network folders through spreadsheets. That model was unsustainable, especially with the regulations changing."
When shopping for new technology, Alom bypassed food industry-specific document management systems because he wanted something "flexible." For that reason, he chose an M-Files-based quality management system implementation because of its handling of workflows and its ability to improve organizational processes.
Farbest Brands hasn't yet used the platform's corrective and preventive action (CAPA) functionality, not because it doesn't want to improve processes, but because document management was an absolute priority. "We implemented it almost in reverse," Alom said. "We are using the controlled document modules and customer modules. We'll eventually do more. We've scratched the surface of what it can do."
Farbest Brands possesses several types of documents that a customer would have to forward to the FDA in a compliance review: product specifications, nutritional information, a risk assessment on allergens and sensitive ingredients, and safety data. "They ask for maybe six different documents, but if it's a qualification process [to verify how a product is made] it could be 30 documents," Alom said.
Previously, a customer's request for documentation -- typically in the form of a questionnaire -- would come via an email, and it was the quality assurance team's responsibility to guide the questionnaire department by department before it could be approved. Keeping track of the documents that would support a questionnaire wasn't easy. Employees didn't know if a customer's folder was completely updated or whether certificates needed renewing before expiring.
When choosing a document management system, Alom surveyed how his and other departments handled files. "The word we picked up was 'workflow.' Although we wanted to manage documents, we also wanted to manage workflow and processes," he said.
Success metrics show progress
Shakirul AlomFarbest Brands quality assurance and compliance manager
Now, the workflow for document requests is mostly automated and transparent with the quality management system implementation. A customer request document is dragged into M-Files and becomes a task that is assigned to different employees. "It gives us visibility; it shows who needs to take responsibility," Alom said. "It saves time in terms of managing these elaborate requests and questionnaires."
Before, Farbest staff would process about 60 customer document requests per month, and now employees are processing about 90 each month thanks to the quality management system implementation. They can also see when certifications are expiring.
"With production qualification and supplier qualification, everyone has different notes and an understanding of the process -- and all of that was being tracked with separate spreadsheets," Alom said. "Now, there's no need to maintain a separate report. As we execute the process, the reporting metrics are generated within the system and are visible in the dashboard."
Alom hasn't performed an ROI on the M-Files platform, but between gains in visibility and efficiency he knows he made the right choice, especially after realizing he doesn't need to hire more help. Before using the platform, he had considered hiring a part-time employee to handle customer requests but now doesn't need the assistance thanks to the quality management system implementation. "We're no longer reactive," Alom said. "What we're doing is getting most updated information available into our customers' hands."