From The Editor | June 26, 2017

What's Senior Leadership's Role In Food Safety Culture?

Sam Lewis

By Sam Lewis, associate editor
Follow Me On Twitter @SamIAmOnFood

What’s Senior Leadership’s Role In Food Safety Culture?

Be sure to watch the entire web chat or read part one of this series

The Grocery Manufacturers Association Science and Education Foundation (GMA SEF) and Cultivate Food Safety partnered with Food Online for a live web chat, Food For Thought: Establishing, Maintaining, And Improving Food Safety Culture. Here, Lone Jespersen, principal at Cultivate and former director of food safety and operations learning at Maple Leaf Foods; and Brian Bedard, executive director of the GMA SEF, discuss senior leadership’s role in food safety culture, how food safety culture can be evaluated and/or measured, and how it can be incorporated into food safety management systems.

Sam: We have questions pouring in from our audience and we'd like to start addressing them.

Lone, you did a great job of laying down 11 pretty big points about what the aspects of food safety culture are. So, I want to go to one of our more frequently asked questions from this chat. It was, "It seems many know of it, but not many know how to create and maintain a food safety culture. How does one start to do that?" So you've got the building blocks, what do you need to do with them?

Lone Lone: I have to say, the first thing to do is absolutely to get leadership engagement, especially if you're in the earlier stages of maturity when it comes to food safety: culture needs to be set from the top. It's not a commitment; it's an engagement from your leadership.

Again, if you have a leadership team and you report into somebody on the leadership team, get on the agenda with sharing some stories about what has happened to other companies potentially. No recall should go wasted when it comes to using it for driving the importance of food safety within your company before you have one on your hands. Building that leadership engagement is where it's clear to the leadership team that transforming culture overnight isn’t possible. It's going to take time, but we need commitment and engagement to build a plan that can be executed over the longer term. My perspective is: get in the face of your leaders with a good story and set the precedence for this. It is something we have to address before it becomes a problem and puts us in the limelight.

Then go to them with a proposal. Say, "Here's one idea: there are these x number of steps,” and, “let me pull together a cross-functional team, let us come to you as the next step with a plan that you can then sink your teeth into so that we can see where we're going over the next three to five years.”

I know that's a hard conversation for many technical people to have, but lean on your colleagues in other functions. Make sure you get their input into building a plan like that. Then get your leadership engaged in pushing it forward.

Brian Brian: Lust a little bit to reinforce what Lone has already said: looking at it from at two levels; the corporate level, in terms of ensuring you get the profile. And then the buy-in at the corporate level so you ensure there's a cross-functional responsibility in terms of adopting and ensuring that you have good food safety practices throughout the organization.

 Lone mentioned recalls. If you look at the risks associated with that, one might argue that perhaps at the level of those that are involved in enterprise risk management and evaluating that and putting systems in place to address that, so it's not only in terms of contamination, but the risks so that the organization financially, brand reputation, and those kinds of things, to get the attention of the very senior leaders and then work your way through that. I'm assuming there will be some questions further on about how we then actually begin to embed this into organizations with the appropriate metrics.

Lone: Sometimes, right or wrong, companies react more to an outside voice than an internal voice. I've yet to find a senior leader in food safety who has gone through any kind of unfortunate event who's not willing to share. Reach out to your network. I do these workshops, I do these talks all over the place, and it's primarily just to give a voice to food safety and to what can happen and then what can you do to not make it happen. So, reach out in your network and get somebody potentially from outside come in and help you with establishing that leadership engagement.

Sam: Yes. That is an excellent point, Lone. When I was at Food Safety Summit in May, there were several folks from your former organization, Maple Leaf Foods, pushing that exact same point. They had a major event several years ago and they made a point to reach out to as many people as they could to make sure it didn't happen again. They're very open to telling that story. Their mission is to never let that happen again. It was pretty inspiring.

We're going to move onto our next question and this is sort of a two-parter; they're a little bit linked. The first part is, “What does good food safety culture look like?” The second part asks, “How do you measure it?”

Lone: I think immaturity plays a big role. The way I like to look at it, there are five stages of maturity ranging from immaturity, or doubting, to stage five, internalizing. You can have your culture evolve from being very immature where you find yourself in a state of doubting — therefore, you are reacting to food safety because somebody external, regulators or customers, is telling you to. Or the latter, where food safety is so embedded into your organization, or culture, that it doesn't actually really require special attention, it's just how business is done.

I like to think about four things that are vital to a manufacturing company: food safety, people safety, productivity, and yield. Most of us are not in the food industry for philanthropic reasons. We're there because it's a business and we'd like to create profit and these businesses get increasingly harder because of the cost pressure. It's unrealistic to think that food safety stands on its own pillar and that's the only thing we should focus on. As food safety professionals, if we go in with that message, then we also risk putting up barriers left, right, and center. In that mature state of culture where you have strong, positive culture, you are looking at those four things, taking equal priority in how decisions are made. There's not an "or" in between. So if I'm the purchasing leader, I don't source a certain ingredient because it is cost effective. I'm sourcing it because it's cost effective and it's meeting our food safety requirements. And that is done naturally because it's how we do business. We know that's how we protect our consumers; we know that's how we're protecting our brands.

In that very-high level, mature culture, decisions like that are made all over the place because it's clear to every individual person how their role in food safety is specific to the overall health of the company. We're not asking purchasing leaders or maintenance supervisors or deli counter operators to be food safety specialists/professionals. Each person brings their unique role to the table. But, an organization as a whole, in that high-state of maturity, has actually made the effort of making it specific enough to everybody what their role is in food safety, providing them with the tools to act on that and also managing that ongoing deposits of the negative consequences to drive those right behaviors in their roles.

That's also how I would go about measuring culture. Looking at where an organization fits on that maturity curve. Maybe you're in a stage two; that's okay. It's okay to know you're in stage two because now you can actually take the appropriate actions to improve. It's not about failing. It's not about a red flag. It's not about a traffic light that's turned red. It's about knowing where you are on this progressive plan on a maturity curve so that you can actually improve in the right places.

And second to that, once you've measured and evaluated, this maturity curve tells you it's not a one-way street. Think about culture as your garden or your own health. If you stop mowing the lawn, if you stop running, you're either going to get longer grass or get much slower. Culture is no different. If you stop maintaining it, you're not sustaining the current maturity level. So it takes ongoing nurturing and attention.

I think that these five stages, when you're up in that high stage five, everybody knows what's expected of them. They can do that, new people are on-boarded into it; therefore you're seeing it paired with other things that are important to the company's survival. Lastly, just think about once you've evaluated — you've found out where you are in the maturity curve — it's not a permanent place. It's not like buying a house. You have to work at actually mowing the lawn and keeping the fitness level.

Sam: Last summer, Lone and I worked together on a few articles covering these very ideas: evaluating your food safety learning/training and determining where you are on the maturity scale. If you’d like more information on those topics, please read those articles.

Let's move onto our next question. How do you work food safety culture into your food safety management system?

Lone: You might not incorporate food safety culture into your food safety management system. But, there is this element or dimension to culture called “consistency,” which has a lot to do with your formal systems.

In the formal systems, I would include food safety management in that. Pick a handful of roles in your company — the maintenance manager or the purchasing supervisor — and try, in your cross-functional team, to say, “If we were to just identify one critical behavior here for that particular role when it comes to food safety, what might that be?” And then try and back that out into, “How are we now setting up that person for knowing that's expected? How are we making sure that they learn about that particular behavior, how do we go about building in that expectation into our management system so that when they move on, somebody new will automatically know what is expected of them?”

Perhaps you can use traditional thinking about requirements or tasks in SOPs and think about first, “What's the critical behavior that you are looking for from somebody when it comes to food safety?” And then turn that into, “What do we need to have in place so a new person in that role knows about it, can figure it out, can do what's expected of them?” And very importantly, “If somebody new cycles into that role, how are we guaranteed that that person doesn't have to go figure this out on their own or a buddy or a manager now has to think about all the important things?” That should be built in, it should already be there. You've documented into your management system what's expected.

When we think about standard, third-party audit standards, there is often a section in there that mentions personnel. Take advantage of that one and build it out and say, "Well, these are the critical roles of food safety in our company and here's how we gone about identifying what they are expected to do in their role and how we're going to make sure that anybody that's competent knows how to.”

It's also about going into your food safety management system and looking at how you've determined how you will evaluate your food safety performance. Now, you're looking at the other equation of this social science; the antecedent's behavior and consequences where the consequences are actually driving the behaviors. We have something to help them see why it needs to change. Where is it reflected in your food safety management system? What you're measuring and how is it linked to those critical behaviors and the critical roles for your company? Those are the ways I would look for it.

Brian: I'd like to take a little step back. If we're looking at implicating these kinds of behaviors, and then being able to measure them, one thing to do is to also look at what the triggers are or the drivers that are motivating or incentivizing people to actually take personal responsibility for these behaviors. Whether you're running a metal detector machine or you're responsible for a particular aspect of sanitation, what are the things that really get people to buy in and to actually take on this responsibility beyond just wanting to meet the requirements for the auditing of their food safety management systems? Is it GFSI or something else? Looking at those kinds of triggers, what are the psychological drivers, and what are the other incentives that you can build into your system to make sure you're putting in place the behaviors that are then measurable.