Tag Archives: Alchemy

Top 10 Tips for Creating a Sustained Food Safety Culture

By Holly Mockus
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After much anticipation, FDA has finally published the FSMA final rules. If you’ve had time to dig into the details, you most likely noted the new initiative that requires companies to measure food safety culture. The industry is also seeing SQF, BRC and other GFSI audit schemes ramping up discussions around measuring food safety culture. However, FDA and GFSI audits aside, how do you create a culture for sustained compliance with this initiative? Follow these 10 tips to ensure your food safety culture is constant and in line with the new requirements

Photo credit: Dennis Burnett for Alchemy Systems
Set clear expectations for employees across the board. Photo credit: Dennis Burnett for Alchemy Systems

1: Create a solid foundation of programs, procedures and policies

Have a preset annual schedule for review and update of all programs, procedures and policies. Don’t let the schedule slide because there are competing priorities. A small pebble is all it takes to start ripple effect in the company, making it difficult to recover.

2: Set clear expectations, driven from the top down

Everyone should follow the rules and guidelines—from visitors to the CEO to the plant manager to the hourly employee. A “no exceptions” policy will drive a culture that is sustainable and drive a “this-is-just-how-we-do-things” mindset.

3: Use record keeping to ensure that food safety culture is well documented and data-driven

Collect the data that is measureable and non-subjective to help drive continuous improvement. If you collect it, you must do something with it. Good documentation is imperative to proving you did what you said you were going to do, especially in the event of an audit. Be stringent in training, and review all documentation before it hits the file cabinet to ensure it is accurate and appropriate.

4: Implement a robust continuous improvement process

Forward momentum through a continuous improvement process cannot be achieved unless management nurtures the program. If you are not continuously improving, you are falling behind.

5: Have a 360-degree approach to employee engagement with 24/7 awareness and communication

Top-down communication is critical to highlighting the priorities and needs of an organization and will not be effective unless an organized program is in place. Organizations that are not making the necessary pivots to communicate with the multiple generations within their workplace today will struggle to sustain change.

6: Foster an atmosphere of mutual respect

Treat people as you would like to be treated, turn the other cheek, etc. There may be lots of adages you quote, but which one best describes your facility and the relationships with management and peers on a daily basis?

7: Be sure employees have consumer awareness for the products they produce

Do your employees know who the end consumer is of the product that they are producing every day?  Does your culture include a review of consumer complaints and customer complaints with your frontline workers?  Listening in to a call center is a very powerful way to help employees understand what affects consumers and how their job is critical to avoiding a food safety or quality issue.

8: Create accountability across the board

Hold folks who do not support the culture in which you are striving to develop or maintain accountable, regardless of their position or stature.

9: Provide positive reinforcement. It’s the best motivator

Work to catch people doing things right and make a big fuss when you do. Positive reinforcement for a job well done is the most powerful motivator. It helps keep every team member on board with food safety commitments.

10: Celebrate often

We spend too much time at work not to celebrate all the good things that are accomplished. Whether it’s a cake and recognition for those that served in the armed forces on Veterans Day or a successful launch of a new product—celebrations are a great way to recognize and reinforce your employees’ hard work. Identifying and correcting mistakes should also be celebrated; they are fertile ground for making changes and provide great nutrients for continuous improvement.

Holly Mockus, Product Manager, Alchemy Systems
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Inspiration for Frontline Employees and Supervisors

By Holly Mockus
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Holly Mockus, Product Manager, Alchemy Systems

No experience in our lives prepares us for working in a food manufacturing plant. It’s noisy, cold, hot, dry, wet, dark, or extra bright. It has a variety of aromas that are beyond description. And it has more rules about how to dress, personal hygiene and traffic patterns than can be committed to memory. Every day, frontline food workers make individual decisions that impact food safety, workplace safety, product quality, and operations. So inspiring employees to learn, apply and retain knowledge requires multiple touch points.

At this month’s Food Safety Consortium conference, Holly Mockus will moderate the session, “Gathering Data to Gather Data: Don’t Learn the Hard Way!” LEARN MOREAt most plants, employee onboarding is usually done through formal classroom training. Group training is a great way to learn in a focused setting and interact with an instructor and co-workers. But ensuring that the training is clear and easy to understand can be a challenge. A recent survey of frontline food workers by the Center for Research and Public Policy, Mind of the Food Worker, reveals that 39% of employees say that training is sometimes too complicated or difficult to understand. Learning must be contextually accurate to resonate with the learner, and alignment with the diversity of today’s frontline worker requires new approaches.

Ensuring employees learn, apply and retain knowledge requires multiple touch points because attention spans are getting shorter. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span is now just 8.3 seconds. Training content has to be presented through different channels in order to stick in the employee’s mind and drive the required behavior.

Companies are increasingly using digital signage to show relevant and eye-catching visuals to reinforce the formal training. The content is more impactful when played at strategic times throughout the production day—continuous or too infrequent may cause the retention level to wane. The content also needs to be changed periodically. Truly effective digital content display will be managed effectively to get the biggest bang for the effort.

Mind of the Food Worker survey
The Mind of the Food Worker survey found that just 43.2% of food workers rarely or never receive coaching from manager/supervisor. Figure courtesy of Alchemy Systems

Leveraging the supervisor and employee interaction through shift change meetings is another important delivery channel for training reinforcement. According to the Mind of the Food Worker survey, only 56.8% of workers said they receive coaching from supervisors. By providing supervisors with scripted huddle guides, they can effectively and consistently reinforce key messages. In addition, supervisors and managers who observe and provide reinforcement or correction individually to employees have found a winning combination that will strengthen and drive culture so that everyone will know the right thing to do every day.

Supervisors are the hub of the wheel that keeps manufacturing on the road and pushes the industry forward every day. Anything that can make life easier for the frontline supervisor will have a high potential for return on investment. Tablets are increasingly being used by supervisors to complete tasks in real time, as it eliminates the need to spend hours deciphering and following up on notes after a shift ends. This in turn gives the supervisor more time to spend on the floor coaching and reinforcing employees. The bond between supervisor and employee is the absolute core of the culture of each manufacturing plant.

The survey, Mind of the Food Worker, was sponsored by Alchemy Systems.

Food Safety Danger: More Than Half of Employees Go to Work Sick

By Maria Fontanazza
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Today the Center for Research and Public Policy (CRPP) released a survey that highlights several key findings related to how frontline food workers operate and approach their jobs. Commissioned by Alchemy Systems, the annual “Mind of the Food Worker” survey revealed enthusiasm on the part of these employees to continue to grow and move up the ranks within their organizations while also underscoring what has become an increasing problem across all U.S. industries—the fact that employees still show up to work when they’re ill.

Food & workplace safety. All graphics courtesy of Alchemy Systems
Food & workplace safety. All graphics courtesy of Alchemy Systems

“Leadership doesn’t believe that people go to work when they’re sick,” Holly Mockus, product manager at Alchemy, told Food Safety Tech. “If people are sick, they should stay home. Not only are we talking about [infecting] people who you’re working with, but we’re also talking about foodborne illnesses that can be transmitted into food.” Employees go into work when they’re sick for a variety of reasons: They don’t want to let their fellow coworkers down (46% provided this response in the survey); they feel peer pressure as a result of staff shortage; or they feel they simply don’t have a choice due to attendance policies and can’t afford to lose pay (more than 45% of respondents gave this answer).  “As an industry we have to take a look at the policies and procedures, along with the way that we’re staffing, and see what we can do to alleviate this [issue]”, says Mockus.

Good News on the Frontlines

Food & workplace safety
Worker confidence reflects a paradigm shift in the food industry.

When confronted with a food safety or product issue, 93% of respondents said they had the confidence to stop working. “The industry has made the paradigm shift that we’ve all been striving so hard to achieve over the last several years,” says Mockus. “The fact that [food workers] understand their role, food safety and workplace safety, and are willing to take responsibility to ensure they stop something that is going awry—that was a very positive thing to come out of the survey.”

The other area of optimism on the frontlines concerns the enthusiasm of workers in improving performance—67% of respondents expressed an interest in being involved in the development of training. This response indicates a movement towards more proactive employees who want to be part of the solution and make a difference. The key takeaway here is for corporate leadership to leverage the institutional knowledge that these in-house frontline workers have to further improve the business and how it operates.

“The food industry needs to take a step back and stop thinking about their workers as hourly workers and instead as an asset to the business,” says Tara Guthrie, communications at Alchemy. “Right now they’re not traditionally viewed as human capital in a corporate world, but they could be a big asset and have a big impact on the bottom line.”

How Employees Learn: A Shift in Mindset

Worker satisfaction
Businesses need to change how they collaborate with and train employees.

Millennials and the reliance on technology have changed how employees learn and operate in the workplace. Within the leadership survey results, nearly 33% of respondents are making changes to adjust to how millennial employees learn. “Traditional management style doesn’t always work well with millennials,” says Mockus. This particular generation is also more in tune with using technology to communicate—even when they are sitting across from each other. Mockus indicates that leadership needs to clearly communicate to millennials the importance of understanding their role within their organizations, especially from a day-to-day operation level, as well as present information in a manner that captures their attention, allows them to retain the information, and enables them to put it into practice every day. This strategy should also extend to other generations of frontline workers. “I think all of us have become accustomed to having immediate information that is encapsulated and contained within a few words,” says Mockus. “We are so used to scanning information and moving on. We have to keep in mind that the way in which people are learning, retaining information and using it is changing. Companies that work toward accommodating those millennials will also be doing a good service for the rest of the adults in the workforce.”

Food Safety and communication gaps that impact the workforce
The survey found some key findings related to communication gaps that impact the workforce.

The survey polled more than 1200 food employees working within production, processing, and distribution—from farms and ranches to slaughterhouses and food processing plants to commercial bakeries, retailers and distributors. It was conducted earlier this summer, and employees were located in the United States and Canada. One of the goals of the survey is to give the industry active takeaways to further drive safety in the food supply.  “We are trying to understand the food workers because they’re such an important part of the whole supply chain,” says Mockus. “They are the most important ingredient in every product that is produced.”

For more key findings, view the Mind of the Food Worker survey.

Next month’s Food Safety Consortium conference will address issues related to employee training, Food Safety Culture, compliance and much more. Register here. The event takes place November 17-20 in Schaumburg, IL.

Empower Employees to Make Decisions

By Maria Fontanazza
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At this year’s IAFP 2015 conference, there was a lot of buzz surrounding food safety culture and employee behavior. Laura Nelson, vice president of business development at Alchemy, shares her insights on the importance of empowering employees. This is achieved through providing training that gives them the confidence to make immediate decisions on the facility floor.

“We have to own the fact that employees are the key. They are exposed to the product and they’re really the ones touching our food every day,” says Nelson. “And yet, we don’t do a really good job at training and measuring that effectiveness in their execution of the behaviors that we train them on, on the plant floor.”

In the following video, Nelson talks about what industry is doing right in food safety culture, and the areas in which improvement is needed moving forward.

The Accountability Factor in Food Safety Culture

By Maria Fontanazza
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To build an organizational culture that embraces true food safety preventive controls, give employees the autonomy to make critical decisions.

Strengthening food safety culture within a company goes beyond the quality function in raising the banner for food safety: Engagement across an organization, from human resources to maintenance to operations are essential. In a recent Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Laura Nelson, vice president of business development and professional services at Alchemy Systems, discusses how companies can train employees working on the plant floor to help them attain a level of empowerment to take an active, preventative role in food safety, as well as how to engage executive leadership in sharing and evaluating metrics.

Food Safety Tech: How does the accountability of employees play into FSMA implementation?

Laura Nelson: FSMA is going to be additive to what [companies] are doing now in some ways. When you look at FSMA, I think about formalized programs for some companies that may not have a full-blown environmental program that is managed as a preventive control. There’s a lot of training [involved], not only in executing the environmental program, but also in how you maintain your environment to prevent those microbial niches. You start to drill back from the actual protocol of environmental monitoring, and what you do when you receive a positive listeria. How can we start educating employees to be able to recognize the niche? [For example,] is it a cramped pushcart, or damage to [something] holding product where it can’t be properly cleaned? You start educating employees at the level that they can play a more preventative role [in recognizing] they need to take equipment out of commission or send it to maintenance because it can’t be cleaned. This is when we start to see a real change in the culture of a plant. People move beyond these SOPs and requirements to a much more facilitative and educational role to drive the support of some of the FSMA requirements.

The other thing I see is record keeping: There’s a big criticality in maintaining records. People maintain a lot of data now, and there’s a lot of ancillary information included. We just haven’t had the scrutiny on record keeping. The auditors will look through it and find the information they need, but it will be a different [level of] scrutiny when FDA inspectors start to look at the data out there. I think that provides a big opportunity for industry to look at how they maintain records, what they use, and how to capture it. Again, it rolls down to employees—educating them on what is a proper record.

FST: Is facilitating employee awareness and training a challenge faced by more smaller companies versus larger organizations?

Nelson: I think large and small companies face the same challenge, and that is to elevate the knowledge of their employees (they are the eyes and ears) to help them maintain your food safety programs. It goes beyond an SOP on how to clean a piece of equipment or wash their hands. It’s more of understanding the “whys” behind it so they can be line-of-sight. They’re [on the floor] 24/7; they’re the ones who see equipment getting damaged, or drips and leaks. For them to understand and recognize what kind of risk that introduces into a plant [enables them] to raise their hand to prompt some corrective action.

There are food companies out there that are looking to achieve that level of autonomy of giving employees the ability to stop a line because there’s a food safety issue. These are hourly workers that have the autonomy to do that. That’s a huge thing. If you’re able to do that, you’ve far surpassed the basic compliance of any kind of training or education. You’re really looking at an organizational culture that has embraced true food safety preventative controls program.

FST: Food Safety Culture makes the connection between employee behavior and accountability, and establishing metrics. What are your thoughts on Food Safety Culture moving forward?

Nelson: It’s very hard to monitor behaviors. It’s easier to do classroom training and check that box. [It’s the] “how-to”: How do you do that? How do you mature your food safety culture to a point where you get to that autonomy point? We know that you need to go beyond letting employees read SOPs and sign-in [sheets], and say they understand it and move on. You have to move beyond classroom training where you’re giving employees what they need to know and telling them the requirements. You have to connect those behaviors, and then monitor and observe those behaviors, and validate that you’re executing on them. Then it’s applied onto the plant floor.

Embrace the culture of helping each other. Once you’ve achieved this: if your employees are executing when you’re not looking, that’s culture. It’s integrated and something that people embrace.

We did some research on the topic and developed an iPad coaching tool that allows people to systematically gather the data, to capture and automate it. We found that supervisors appreciated it because they had something that was clear and gives them dialogue on what to say in the event that something was missed.

FST: Where should companies focus when training and educating employees to reach a stage of empowerment?

Nelson: The training needs to be at the [appropriate] education level; it needs to be in the language they that understand. [For example,] companies may be able to do a lot more with pictures to accommodate non-English speaking folks in their plant.

Employees need to be challenged and quizzed to make sure they understand the information. The training itself needs to be tied to metrics:  What are you trying to achieve as a plant and therefore [need] to train people on? This should be tied into factors such as customer complaints, quality issues, and what has a direct impact on what employees are doing or not doing, as this [leads to] much more accountability. That’s where the role of the frontline supervisor is critical. That position is absolutely key to the success of driving food safety program compliance. We have to recognize that our frontline supervisors need the skills to motivate employees and communicate effectively with them, including discussing the challenges in conflict resolution.

Elevating food safety so employees as are aware. Awareness programs have a documented advance to people trying to drive specific requirements. We’ve seen a lot of people develop awareness programs around food safety and provide the focus in the plant on key elements that people struggle with. That way, they’re able to have multiple touch points (posters, digital signage, huddle guides). This is absolutely key as we move forward: not just training, but ongoing awareness.

FST: How can companies further educate management to understand the value of food safety culture and reach a point of alignment?

Nelson: There is and can be a pretty big disconnect between executive leadership and what is going on related to food safety. When you talk about the collaboration of the team and those within the plant, you have to include your executive management team. They should understand the different activities and efforts that go into driving a food safety program in a plant. When talking about metrics and evaluating effectiveness, that data should be shared with the executive team on a routine basis so that everyone is clear on what is happening in the plant as well as the results. If the results aren’t where we want them to be, and we’re not in a continuous improvement mode, then what is it going to take to get there? That dialogue should be had.

If you don’t continue to educate your executive team on what issues you’re seeing, then you start creating a divide within the organization. That’s part of what stems from people struggling with a lack of resources and time; this disproportionate disconnect is between other activities within a plant. Communication needs to be routine; people need to be held accountable for metrics so that you’re actually tracking to them. And if you need [more] resources, it’s the perfect way to start building a case for getting additional sales, technology, programs or procedures.

Food Safety Tech’s Food Safety Culture Series

Embed Food Safety Culture. There’s No On/Off Switch

Food Safety Culture: Measure What You Treasure