First principles thinking can set leaders apart. How? Well, what do Southwest Airlines, SpaceX and the newest approach to pitching in baseball, “bullpenning,” have in common? Each took a new approach to solving an existing problem:

  • Southwest eliminated the hub-and-spoke model favored by other airlines, reduced turn times at airports and standardized on a single type of airplane (the Boeing 737) to reduce and simplify maintenance. The result was lower fares and cornering the market on inexpensive air travel. This sparked change in the industry.
  • SpaceX started with the basics of what went into a rocket and figured out how to build (comparatively) inexpensive and reusable rockets. Now they sell space transport to the government.
  • Bullpenning – Several major league baseball teams realized that starting pitchers couldn’t make it three times through the top of the opponent’s line-up without getting lit up. So, they instead have a relief pitcher throw the first inning and then turn to the traditional “starter.” (Sorry, had to get a baseball story in as the playoffs start.)

All of these are examples of “First Principles Thinking.” And, this approach can be applied to solve problems in the fresh food supply chain.

What is First Principles Thinking?

You can Google it and find things relating to Aristotle and Descartes, but an article by James Clear First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking for Yourself makes the entire concept much easier to understand for those of us that didn’t major in physics or philosophy. Clear states that, “First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.” He adds, “it’s a fancy way of saying ‘think like a scientist.’ Scientists don’t assume anything. They start with questions like, ‘What are we absolutely sure is true? What has been proven?’”

Clear says that it’s human nature to iterate rather than innovate. We add bells and whistles to products rather than starting from the ground up to solve a problem. He cites the example of the suitcase. Satchels and wheels have been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1970 that someone thought of the idea of putting wheels on a suitcase.

“First principles thinking requires you to abandon your allegiance to previous forms and put the function front and center. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the functional outcome you are looking to achieve?

So, What’s This Got to Do with the Fresh Food Supply Chain?

You can see a violation of this approach in the food supply chain as well. For decades we’ve been wasting 30-40 percent of our fresh food. It spoils before we can consume it – on the grocer’s shelves and in our refrigerator. So, we place the blame where the waste manifests itself and becomes visible. We assume the problem is with the retailer or the consumer. It’s not.

We know produce needs to have proper refrigeration from the time the produce is harvested, and we need to have cold chain compliance, so we placed a low-tech data logger in the trailer and hope that will solve the problem.

Yet the waste problem persisted. So, we created USB data loggers, adding some technology to the approach. Yet the waste problem persisted. Now we use ethylene absorbers and coatings. They can help extend shelf-life. Yet we still end up with waste.


Because no one tried to figure out what the basic cause was and fix that. Until now.

What Do We Know to Be True?

We know that once a product is harvested, it’s at its maximum freshness capacity. From that point on, the produce respirates and consumes its available energy – it ages. The goal of refrigeration is to slow that down as much as possible to preserve the shelf-life of the product. But, we need to realize that the impact on aging begins the moment the product is harvested, not later in the supply chain. We need to start measuring the impact of temperature on the product immediately. We also know this impact varies at the pallet level, not the lot or field level.

Intelligent Pallet Routing

By autonomously tracking the condition of each pallet of product from harvest to shipment (using IoT sensors) and applying predictive analytics we can determine the dynamic remaining shelf-life of the product for each pallet. When we have that data, we can know which pallet goes where to ensure delivered freshness of the produce. So, for example, if you’re a grower in Salinas and you have two pallets, one with eight days of shelf-life and one with 12 days of shelf-life, you’d want to ship the one with 12 days to your customer in New York and the one with eight days to your customer in Phoenix. That way, each customer gets sufficient shelf-life for sell-through and customer consumption.

You can’t make that decision without the data though as, at that point, all product looks the same. If you guess, you have a fifty-fifty chance of sending a pallet with twelve days to Phoenix (no problem there) and one with eight days on a five or six day trip to New York where it will arrive with two or three days of shelf-life and spoil at the store or with the consumer (big problem there).

By applying this new approach to freshness management, everyone’s happy. Both pallets arrive with sufficient remaining shelf-life for sale and consumption. There’s no waste. Using a First Principles approach and identifying the cause of the problem – rather than the symptom – and then engineering a solution to that cause eliminates waste in the fresh food supply chain.

Learn more about Zest Fresh for Produce.