Food Safety Magazine

Cover Story | February/March 2015

The Pieces of the Food Safety Puzzle

By Gary Ades, Ph.D., Ken Leith and Patti Leith, M.A.

The Pieces of the Food Safety Puzzle

In a recent article entitled “Food Safety Culture: Insurance Against Catastrophe,” appearing in the October/November 2014 issue of Food Safety Magazine, we discussed culture as a foundational component enabling food safety to be successful. That article offered a road map to achieve cultural change and gain commitment within an organization.

In this article, we are introducing the concept of the Food Safety Puzzle.

The puzzle is used as an analogy. It will identify the key elements (puzzle pieces) needed to achieve an effective food safety program. We will clearly identify and define each puzzle piece and how they are connected. This article will offer details, questions and considerations for your team to discuss across your organization.

The Food Safety Puzzle encompasses the five pieces critical to making food safety a real part of your organization. While they are separate, they are also connected. They are culture; management commitment; organizational structure; food safety processes and procedures; and implementation (Figure 1). This article will discuss three of the five puzzle pieces: management commitment, organizational structure and implementation.

What’s in the Puzzle?
Culture was discussed in detail in the previous article. It is foundational and solidly connected to management commitment, organizational structure and implementation activities. This article will deal with culture only at a summary level but will offer a deeper view of the other three puzzle pieces.

Management commitment is the most important part of making your efforts integrated and sustainable. Commitment drives culture and leads to good organizational structure decisions. Commitment is also critical to making implementation actually happen. Management commitment impacts the decisions about all the other puzzle pieces.

Organizational structure refers to the way an organization has allocated the duties associated with food safety efforts. We will offer a list of questions to consider when making decisions about structure. We will also address how process change that occurs during program implementation affects structure.

Food safety processes and procedures fully implemented and followed are the desired outcome for an effective food safety program. They are activities that ensure food safety in the areas of growing, manufacturing/processing, foodservice operations, retail operations and distribution of food. They include prerequisite programs, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) systems and continuous improvement programs. Others have previously reviewed food safety processes and procedures in books, articles and presentations. For this reason, we will not discuss what makes up adequate and effective food safety processes and procedures. Rather, we will focus on the key puzzle pieces involved in making them a reality.

Implementation is the planning and execution of the steps necessary to achieve the organization’s food safety goals. It begins with the identification of what is needed to actually make it happen. Planning creates a road map for full integration and implementation. What occurs will drive structure. How it occurs will drive the need for education and training. Planned cultural enhancement should be considered an important part of any implementation initiative. Planning for the culture to embrace change, rather than hoping it will do so, will lead to success.

To make sure that all of the puzzle pieces fit properly and stay together, there are certain activities that form the “glue.” They are involved in and key to every one of the puzzle pieces. They include communication/education/training and metrics to measure success.

The word “puzzle” should not be confused with something that is not achievable but rather looked upon with the understanding that puzzles can be solved by seeking solutions through analysis, experience and commitment.

Culture Review
Culture encompasses what employees believe and what they think they should do. The true litmus test is whether employees do the “right thing” when nobody is watching. Organizations talk about culture, but it is shaped by what is measured and rewarded. It is foundational, because a healthy food safety culture is critical to making and sustaining the change. Culture is also related to the other puzzle pieces. Cultural change will occur when an organization renews or refreshes its management commitment to food safety. Achieving cultural change is often a byproduct of the implementation of initiatives that improve food safety.

The “glue” noted above is key to establishing cultural change. Culture must be communicated. People must be educated and trained on what it is and why it is important. Establishing true measures of success (metrics) is what seals and supports the cultural change.

Gaining Management Commitment
Commitment by its very definition is “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause or action.” Synonyms include words like guarantee, promise, pledge and responsibility. The implication is that once committed, a person has decided to put forth all resources to do what he or she must to ensure the desired outcome.

A food safety program cannot be implemented without solid levels of management commitment that cross all departments. The absence of such commitment and departmental cooperation will result in one of three scenarios in which the desired outcome is not reached:

•    Nothing is done to advance the efforts (inactivity)

•    People begin to talk about it but don’t really do anything differently (lip service)

•    People try to do positive things but stop because it is too hard or they are penalized instead of rewarded (misalignment)

For food safety to develop, evolve or improve within your organization, your leaders must openly commit to it as a priority in words and action.

Gaining commitment sounds simple. The top person in an organization or department should just be able to say it is important and everyone will jump on board. We all know it doesn’t happen that way, much to the dismay and frustration of many top leaders. Leaders must come to believe in and communicate change in ways that inspire others. They should visibly influence people, every day. Managers must support commitment in action, holding people accountable for making the changes necessary and addressing it firmly when people don’t do the right things.

To make commitment visible to the organization in ways that actually prompt change in culture, structure and actions, leaders should use the glue. They will need to change goals with appropriate performance metrics. They also will need to adjust communications. Thirdly, they must support the necessary resource allocation of people, money and departmental cooperation.

Organizational Structure Considerations
Structure is the way an organization is built to get the desired work completed. It encompasses who reports to whom (solid line vs. dotted line) and also how the work is structured within a position. This should be fully aligned with the process, that is, the set of steps inherent in getting something done. Every task within a process should reside in someone’s job. Process mapping helps to be certain that every needed step is to be done by someone, allowing for effective implementation.

Each person should clearly understand his or her role and responsibility. They should know exactly how the tasks should be done, be held accountable for the thorough and effective completion of those tasks and fully understand how that task fits into the process so they can effectively connect it with the rest of the work. This will enable clear handoffs between people/departments who own different parts of the process, for example, quality assurance vs. quality control.

While process is developed during implementation, it is central to the decisions regarding structure. Making the right structure decisions involves several considerations:

1.    How is it structured?
    •    What department has responsibility for it?

    •    Is there a separate position or department to handle it, or is it added to an already existing department?

    •    Within that/those departments, who will actually do the work?

        –    If a department owns it, the department’s goals must reflect it.

        –    If a person completes the work, he or she should be held accountable for its execution.

        –    If a person is involved in any way, he or she must be educated and trained.

        –    If a department is involved in any way, its people must have clear job descriptions at all levels, specifically outlining what is expected and what scope each role has in making things happen. This is true whether it falls under one role or the organization chooses to add it to every role. Job descriptions, education, training and performance reviews are the best way to support employees in making substantial change.

2.    What level does it report to within the hierarchy?

    •    Who drives the decisions?

        –    In theory, the higher the better. But there needs to be “boots on the ground” attention paid to the issues, rather than just a figurehead or spokesperson.

        –    The person actually responsible for the decisions should have clarity about how work flows. The person he or she reports to is more likely given oversight responsibilities. He or she should have not only the responsibility but also the authority to be effective in their position.

3.    Who is ultimately accountable?

    •    Who is really responsible for making it happen?

        –    In any organization, the buck stops at the top. Structure decisions, however, should embrace accountability for the people doing the work at every level.

The glue of communication/education/training and metrics is applicable here as well. Every position will need to know what is happening and how that impacts them. Every position will need performance measures to ensure that the change occurs and that the structure works as it should. It is necessary to know “who” needs to know, “what” they need to do and “how” to measure that it is accomplished.

Food safety and a commitment to it are not simply the responsibility of the people in the food safety/quality assurance department. Even if your organization has a person whose sole responsibility is food safety, the commitment cannot rest solely with him or her. Instead, the entire organization needs to address it. Everyone must develop skills to do the work and make the right decisions that take into account overall corporate objectives.

Effective Implementation
This is the means by which new work is identified, planned and executed. It is always done within the context of the organization’s strategy. Implementation should encompass desired cultural change and plan for it. It will drive structure, because it changes process. Implementation will never happen without management commitment. Implementation is viable only with effective communication, education and training. It is ensured only with good metrics.

Implementation involves planning detailed process design/change and skills development.

Planning
The planning process begins with the leadership team determining the current state of reality, the intended “goal” state and the gap between the two. This leads to planning for solutions to bridge the gap. Inherent in the solutions and their details is the fact that processes will change significantly.

Process Change
The key to fully changing processes is to really understand, in detail, what will be different. Process mapping is the best way to determine what is currently happening. Then you can map what needs to happen. When you reconcile the two, your needed change becomes clear (see “What Is a Process Map?”).

In any process change, mapping will help your team plan how to change. This is particularly important with new processes. The organization can and should vet the process with people who do the work. Production/operations employees have the knowledge and hands-on experience with the product to ensure an enhanced level of accuracy in planning the process. They can also help ensure that the process is possible, efficient and realistic, and will have the intended impact. The employees’ input and cooperation also presells the ideas within the group that has to actually implement the changes.

Leadership often does not have a full sense of what is really happening. For example, in a recent process efficiency session that we facilitated, the leadership team identified 19 steps within a process. When vetted by the people who do the work, the process actually had 43 steps. When leadership does not fully understand the current state, it simply cannot accurately develop a good connection to a future state. That blind spot can inhibit success in the final plan and in the communication of the plan.

Another example of the need to accurately understand a process can be found in two of the five preliminary steps in the development of an HACCP plan. Namely, developing a flow diagram that describes the process and verifying the flow diagram. Think about how often a group you have participated in has sat around a table to develop a process flow diagram, only to find out it is not accurate when you go out on the floor to verify it.

Skills Development
Employees’ skills often need development when a change is made. A person involved in the process change must alter what he or she does to ensure daily commitment and follow-through on processes to ensure high quality standards. It may be necessary for those involved to change their way of thinking, making food safety the highest priority when making decisions. Employees may have to learn new things or understand how the things they do support the overall goals.


Whatever the change needed, skills development will take time and commitment on the part of the worker. He or she can embark on the changes necessary once they understand the expectations. Managers should address the people facing this change with patience and encouragement while learning, but also explain the consequences for avoiding daily commitment to the process.  

In most organizations, the production/operations department will face the greatest change. It is almost always tasked with getting items out the door as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Fast, cheap and on time, without shorting an order. These goals encourage shortcuts that may encourage risk taking. While this method may have fewer potential risks in a nonfood factory, although quality will be impacted, it simply can’t be allowed when it comes to food safety. Food safety has a high-risk impact, and food facilities should strive for as low a risk as possible.

Production/operations department objectives may run counter to the concepts behind ensuring food safety. The concepts behind food safety require time, commitment and resources, which means they won’t always be fast, cheap and on time. If the organization wants to ensure commitment, goals should be well understood and steps taken to minimize food safety risks while meeting corporate objectives. This requires effective communication and discussions between departments and an understanding that everyone has an important role to play in food safety.  

Leaders and their employees have to constantly remind themselves and each other that these new steps are critical, essential and required. They are not optional. Decisions should be made based on that objective. It is similar to going from single to married or from childless to having children. The carefree, “do whatever seems right at the time” mentality must be replaced with decisions that affect the well-being of the other person, whether it be spouse or child. Decisions cannot be made on a whim, without thinking them through. They cannot be made in a vacuum without considering their larger impact. It is a new way of thinking. Food safety decisions must be made within the context of what is right for that commitment and should encompass the total organization in their thinking.

What Next?
Once you have intentionally addressed all parts of the Food Safety Puzzle, your organization will be equipped to handle food safety proactively every day. It becomes part of the company’s DNA. Once the change is clear and communicated and the rules of the game are set, everyone simply changes. Remember that things will need to be adjusted as you go. Be looking for it. Be open to it. Be proactive about addressing it.   

Gary Ades, Ph.D., is president of G&L Consulting Group LLC. He is a member of Food Safety Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board. He provides food safety, quality assurance, crisis planning and strategic planning assistance to his clients (farm to fork).  

Ken Leith and Patti Leith, M.A., are managing partners of EDGES Inc., a business growth services firm located in Bentonville, AR, assisting clients in developing strategy, culture, people, process and metrics. They also specialize in strategic execution and talent and project management.

Categories: Management: Best Practices, Training

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