Food Safety Culture: Insurance Against Catastrophe
By Gary Ades, Ph.D., Ken Leith and Patti Leith, M.A.
For food safety to succeed in an organization, the most important element is management commitment. Commitment to specific areas is a defining element of a company’s culture. Shifting commitments will change a company’s culture. One of the ways to influence change is through organizational responsibilities, along with the inherent metrics to measure success. So to attain and sustain a successful commitment to food safety, the organizational culture must evolve. The goal is to have an organization that embraces food safety and has the willingness to put the right people in the right places, gives them not only the responsibility but also the authority to do their jobs and fosters departmental cooperation at all levels. The goal of this article is to help you understand how you can influence and change culture to make a difference in your organization’s willingness to commit people, money and resources.
Culture is patterned after what people talk about, but it is shaped by what is measured and rewarded. Positive change happens when you tell people what will be different, measure the things you are trying to change and hold people accountable for their part in achieving results.
Measures include more obvious numeric (hard) results such as impact on the business, no recalls, better quality, higher productivity, increased customer satisfaction, longer shelf life and better audit scores. Less obvious (soft) measures include minimized risk, lower turnover, higher morale, greater employee involvement, better interdepartmental cooperation, higher respect for management and better problem solving at lower levels in the organization. These are the things that you cannot put a firm number on, but you can see them improve. If you don’t measure what you are trying to change, you won’t know if you are improving.
Why Do It?
The simple answer is, it is the right thing to do. The more compelling reason is what can happen when you don’t. When an organization proactively decides to make a firm commitment to food safety, it is similar to purchasing an insurance policy, in that it protects against catastrophe. Some companies, however, refuse to change focus and do not make the decision to commit time and resources to the improvement of their food system until experiencing the crippling emotional and monetary cost of a mistake. By then, it is likely too late.
If an organization has to be reactive in its approach to food safety, it is likely that a catastrophic event has already occurred. If this is the case, the organization may be facing extreme challenges that can include a costly lawsuit or recall. This sends an organization scrambling to respond and correct. Likely, it will affect its reputation and consumer confidence, severely impacting finances as well as affecting employee morale. Many companies cannot recover. The worst time to plan for a crisis is during a crisis. Decisions are often emotional and commonly made by the wrong people in an organization.
Why Don’t We Do It?
So why are so many organizations still thinking about or just dabbling with food safety, when the prudent course is to address potential problems before they occur?
Because it takes time, costs money and is difficult to integrate the proper practices because of things such as understanding the solutions, departmental cooperation and technical hurdles. In some cases, the organization may struggle to convince leadership that it is important enough to warrant the commitment (see “Cultural Transition”).
Familiar comments that reflect the sentiment about the issue might include: “We’ve never had a problem before,” or “It’s too expensive—not worth the money—we’ll take the chance,” or “Nobody else is doing this—it will put us at a disadvantage to spend the money” or “That’s overkill!”
Some leadership teams may think cultural change is an easy, simple fix and won’t really cost a lot. Write a good mission statement that encompasses the core essence of how you want people to behave and include food safety. Or craft a vision statement that outlines the organization’s future objectives and include something about food quality. Simply change the words you say and you should be good to go…right? Sadly, this shows intention but not follow-through.
Some leaders may talk about food safety but not show employees how to accomplish it or hold employees accountable for it. They may give knowledgeable individuals the responsibility but not the authority. Leadership may say a practice is unacceptable but then actually accept it by not doing anything about it. It is trite but true—“Many talk the talk, few walk the walk.”
What Is Culture? How Can You Affect It?
Organizational culture encompasses what employees believe and what they think they should do. It drives actions and regulates what gets rewarded. It highlights those things that fall outside of what is expected and defines how they are dealt with. It resides within the attitudes and commitments of each person within the organization. It is developed by, with and for people, although most people will not plan for it or see it forming.
Culture has many ingredients. These might include values, norms, accepted behaviors, history, tradition, habits and expectations. Enhancing an organizational culture to embrace food safety practices may involve rewiring some of what is currently shaping the culture. The efforts will likely create new norms and accepted behaviors that lead to new habits and higher expectations.
Culture is based on several factors. It is impacted by the history within your organization and what its leaders have talked about in the past. This has a greater impact in an organization that tells its stories to its new employees. But culture is also affected by the present—what leaders talk about today, how they behave and what they let others do. Another key element in culture is the rewards. What is required to receive a promotion, pay increase, recognition or award?
Culture also has an intangible element that impacts its form on any given day. Lets call it “by example.” People do more of what is easy and more of what is silently rewarded. They do less of what is too hard and fewer of the things that get them (or others) into trouble. When a successful person behaves in a certain way, others mimic that behavior if they want to be successful.
So if a person gets things done with others respectfully and is thorough in his/her work and that person gets promoted, the signal it sends to the organization is that respecting others and being thorough is important. Consequently, people will do that to receive similar status in the future.
However, if a person chooses to look the other way or take shortcuts and there are no consequences, and that person also gets promoted, that sends a strong message to others that even though we call that behavior unacceptable, it really is acceptable. Others may, in fact, do the same thing and nobody will do much of anything about it. The organization puts up with it and, in some cases, they even reward it.
Understanding the key elements of culture can help a leadership team figure out how to plan for the intended enhancements rather than let the shift happen randomly. The absence of efforts to plan and/or change culture to meet the changing goals within an organization may produce a culture that supports actions that run contrary to the strategic goals of the organization. Such a situation may even put the well-being of the organization at great risk if something goes wrong and people look the other way.
The main objective of the leadership team, when making a commitment to excellence in food safety practices, is to plan for the culture change to support the safety focus. Failure to do so will render the efforts wasteful and ineffective. Good, positive cultures attract and keep good, positive people.
How Do You Do It?
Mission and vision statements are good places to start, but they only begin to define the targeted shifts needed in culture. They aren’t always easy to craft collaboratively and doing so will not solve the problem. Simply reiterating these statements does not mean that individuals who are accustomed to a different set of norms will change without having to do so. It is not even likely that such statements will prompt activity toward stated goals without a comprehensive plan for accountability. Including a commitment to food safety in the mission and vision statements will help tell people you are serious about the objectives, but it is not enough to enable sustainable change. You have to tell people you are going to do it, show them how to do it, provide them with the resources to do it and make sure they do it.
The very nature of this challenge demands a top-level commitment. Management first needs to decide that it is important and also that they need to do it. The decision is based on history (both their own and others’) as well as understanding the true cost of people getting sick or dying, impact on the brand, monetary losses and impact on employee morale. The entire leadership team must be willing to collaborate to determine exactly what needs to change and how it should be happening. They also need to identify the obstacles or barriers that will get in the way. Then they use those variables to develop a change plan.
This may involve a look at structure; when doing so, consider this premise:
Quality Assurance will reside within the direction, commitment and focus of the company, while being supported by the necessary resources and actions.
Quality Control is the responsibility of the people actually producing the product.
The entire effort should be implemented in the same way as any other strategic initiative. It cannot be one leader’s pet project, but rather must be owned and practiced by everyone, every day. The commitment must merge with and become a defining part of a new movement in culture.
Road Map to Cultural Change
The process of shaping culture from the onset—maintaining it, changing it when necessary, enhancing it or just making minor changes to it—requires the total focus of the organization at a deeper level than a mission or vision statement alone can achieve. Leaders need to understand why the current culture exists. They should define what is contrary to the goals. Collaboratively, they must understand the changes they want to make and develop a comprehensive action plan to implement them. Finally, leaders and managers should develop a plan to communicate the change, and educate and train people on how to ensure and measure successful change. Often, the organization will benefit from leadership skills development for all levels of leadership to ensure focus and accountability, and to leverage success.
The steps to make food safety a priority are simple to define but take true commitment to deliver. Every step is important. The more levels involved in discovering and defining this, the more integrated the solutions will become. Many times, an objective outside person can help facilitate the process.
Step 1: Where are we? Define the current reality.
Fully understand what is happening today. Organizations don’t often see their opportunities. Seek objective feedback and ask the people doing the work what is going on, ensuring that you are open to feedback. Productive dialogue requires that communication flows up, down and across the entire organization. This is how you should start this work. This interactive dialogue should become a way of life. Leaders in an organization need to know what is really happening, all the time.
Step 2: Where should we be? Define future objectives.
Identify a comprehensive series of guidelines. Know exactly what practices you want to exist in your organization. Understand your goals to implement food safety practices to prevent mistakes, keep problems from occurring and be able to effectively respond to issues. This work should be collaborative and involve all key leaders—who should be getting input from their teams.
Step 3: What is missing? Know the problems.
Determine what needs to change. The success of this step depends fully on the accuracy of Steps 1 and 2. To understand what is missing, you have to know where you are and where you are going. Once the team knows these two things, the missing parts (and their root causes) become very clear. We call this the gap. Your objective is to bridge the gap between where you are today and what you want to and will achieve tomorrow.
Step 4: What is needed to get to where we should be? Develop solutions.
Determine how to change what is currently taking place. This will involve process analysis and beginning your process change planning. In a culture of continual process improvement, this will happen more easily. In a culture that still thinks of that thing you changed 5 years ago as new, this will take more effort. The objective is to provide specific guidance to all levels about solutions that effectively improve something in the business. This work should also address the need to remove the causes of the undesirable situations that exist.
Step 5: How do we get there? Develop a plan to show people what to do.
Identify the details of the solutions. Fully outline what needs to be accomplished, how it should be accomplished, when and by whom. Some of the components of this plan will be one-time initiatives, whereas others will be ongoing. Most of these solutions will be embedded in process, which will prompt overall process change. Remember to look at efficiency within processes when adjusting or changing them. Good processes need to be based upon best practices (owned by all) rather than tribal knowledge (owned by each individual). Documentation is paramount in this step. The details are a critical part of any change. It is easy to talk about what to do, but not as easy to determine how to do it. Until that detail work is done, people will not be able to do what you are asking them to do.
Step 6: Who needs to know what? Tell people what and why, and show them how.
Develop a detailed plan for communication to support your change (see “Developing a Powerful Plan to Communicate Change”). You are changing the rules of the game, so inform the players. This will involve communication to everyone. Tell everyone in every way possible. Employees directly impacted, or from whom major change will be required, should be told individually.
This will also require education for those doing or supporting the change, to give them the information they need to understand why the change is occurring and what it means for them.
Finally, training should be done for those needing to change what they actually do. This should involve training in process and skills while also offering opportunities for guided practice. Documentation of the new process can be used to train employees.
Employee job descriptions should get changed to reflect exactly what they are responsible for accomplishing. Process and procedure manuals should be updated for clear references during and after training. For each involved party, clearly define and demonstrate what they will be doing differently.
Step 7: How do we know it is successful? Develop appropriate metrics.
Once guidelines have been set, defined and communicated, they must be measured across the organization, within departments and for each employee. Remember that measurement drives behavior, so don’t measure anything that doesn’t tell you how you are doing, compared with your goal. Test and validate your methods to be sure you are on target. This is generally more effective when utilizing systems that can generate progress reports.
Step 8: How do we continue to improve? Ensure accountability and reward.
Once you measure, be sure to reward and recognize success or desired behaviors as often as possible, no matter how small. This will remind others to follow the same patterns while keeping the targets on the forefront. Also, if someone is not meeting expectations, leaders need to hold them accountable for aligning their behavior with what is expected. Remember that failure to address missed expectations will send a strong message that it is OK. This will deflate any attempts at improvement within organizational culture. The ability to ensure accountability and reward will be enhanced if leaders can rely on a system to remind them about follow-up, tracking progress and checkpoints. They also need to have good skills for follow-through, influence and conflict management.
Key Things to Remember
The elements of an effective program should translate leadership’s commitment to continuous quality improvement through education and training of employees and managers at all levels (Figure 1). Training topics should center on the prerequisites to food safety, the fundamental dynamics of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and continuous improvement. This can only happen with management commitment to ensure it is being done and being done well.
The consequences of not integrating this insurance can be dire. People can be injured or die. The financial costs can be extensive and include, but are not limited to, medical expenses and loss of productivity for impacted persons, loss of productivity for you due to stress within the organization, legal fees, decreased sales and increased insurance premiums. If the organization does come through the event financially intact, the most damaging element is very likely its injured reputation and the painstaking time it takes to rebuild consumer confidence.
As if that were not enough, the future may hold even more personal consequences for the leaders within the organization. Legal actions are becoming more prevalent, with significant penalties for company leaders. For example, the Park Doctrine may be used in the future. The Park Doctrine allows the federal government to seek a misdemeanor conviction against a company official for alleged violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) without having to prove that the official participated in or was even aware of the violations. The government need only demonstrate that the official was in a position of authority to prevent or correct the alleged violation. The Park Doctrine, in effect, renders FDCA violations strict liability crimes for corporate officials in positions of responsibility or authority.
What You Can Do
If your organization is embarking on the commitment to food safety, use this information as a road map to make sure that your efforts are both comprehensive and successful. After understanding the risks and rewards, develop a way to effectively communicate the importance to key people in the organization. We will be covering this topic in an upcoming article.
If you are in a key leadership position, use this information as a means to engage others in dialogue about the implementation of the effort. If your organization needs to make this commitment but you are not a member of the key leadership team, use this information as a foundation to engage in dialogue influencing others to commit to such efforts. Develop the ability to communicate in terms that management understands. Remember that numbers talk to people. Thus, arm yourself with an understanding of pertinent numbers for your organization and take some time to understand what has happened to organizations that did not do this.
Finally, if this is your job in an organization, be thorough about the details.
Think of food safety precaution as if it were a type of insurance. Individuals buy insurance to transfer risk and gain peace of mind, making the decision to protect themselves from catastrophe. When your organization commits to increasing quality standards to ensure food safety, the changes must become routine and daily to be sustainable. Like any other initiative, it won’t happen without an action plan that tells each person involved what he should do, how to do it and why.
You must also provide employees with the tools to do what you are asking them to do. Tools include financial resources, people, equipment, education, training and departmental cooperation.
Remember that food safety needs to be your top priority, not an afterthought. It is far less costly if you implement food safety practices before you have an event. Once you have experienced a breach of quality if someone finds something in your food, or if he or she gets sick (or dies) because of something in your food, life as you know it today will forever change.
Gary Ades, Ph.D., is president of G&L Consulting Group LLC. He is an experienced food professional, having worked in the technical, manufacturing and marketing areas of the food and foodservice industry. 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). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 own and operate e-Gauge Inc., a software company specializing in strategic execution, talent management and project management, based in Fort Collins, CO. You may contact them at 479.203.7198 or 970.515.7898, or via email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.