The most important food safety leadership lesson I ever learned.

03 Mar 2023


Stop firefighting and lead!

I recently had the privilege of spending a day with an amazing food safety leader. I had never met or worked with this person before, but I soon came to realise that I was in the room with a master who was going to teach me a very valuable lesson. 

Coincidentally the day of my “master class” was also the day before their certification audit. The food safety leader took the time to introduce me to the team, which in turn took the time to talk to me about their individual roles and responsibilities. The team was calmly and diligently going about their tasks as if it was just another day. This intrigued me as I had never experienced such calm in a factory the day before an audit. The food safety leader preempted my question and smiled! 

“It was not always like this. When I joined the company, we used to run around like chickens with our heads cut off just before an audit. It was stressful, tiring and despite all the frenetic preparation we only just managed to pass the audits and occasionally failed a few. I knew we could not go on like this and something had to change. That is when I made up my mind to stop firefighting and lead 

I understood what she meant. In an enterprise’s food safety journey there comes a point when leaders make a conscious effort to change from reactive compliance to customer and regulatory requirements to proactive management of food safety as a part of a company’s business needs.

Making a change like this does not happen overnight and I knew that in order for them to get to the position where they were today, it had taken a lot of hard work and good leadership.

Unfortunately, too many companies become comfortable in “firefighting mode”. 

On an intellectual level, leaders know that “firefighting mode” is not where they want to be. However, in some bizarre way they find comfort and solace in the chaos and short term rewards of “firefighting”. For some it is a resigned acceptance of the way they have always done it. It has become a habit. Many enterprises want to change but do not know how to or the obstacles that they perceive make it too difficult to change. Some make excuses. “ I do not have the time!” I do not have the money!” “I do not have the training!” “I do not have the right people!” . All justifiable excuses, but excuses non the matter.

As an example, I recently spoke to a The quality director of a large multinational company. He told me that they have not been able to truly implement root cause analysis because it takes too much time to do it properly. Yet, he then went on to explain, with much enthusiasm, how the company was embarking on a new continuous improvement initiative. Continuous improvement requires the use of problem solving and root cause analysis, so I feared that this company would soon come up with some new excuses why the new continuous improvement initiative would not work.

“Change” is a mindset and one that requires a desire to change. 

For our food safety leader, the desire was to “stop the chaos”. 

Making a change like moving from a reactive approach to a proactive approach takes strong leadership. It requires leaders who want to change and have developed strong technical and soft skills to lead the change.

What does it mean to stop firefighting and lead? 

Our Food Safety Leader made 6 fundamental changes:

  1. -- She changed the titles and job descriptions of her quality team. The quality team changed from QC/QA policing roles to technical support roles. The QC Manager became the Technical Support Manager. The rationale was that it was in a food business’s best interest to provide production with all the technical support they need to get a safe quality product out the door. This simple change had a profound impact on the culture and significantly reduced the traditional head-butting that occurs between the quality and production departments.

  2. She created a learning culture by focusing on talent acquisition and talent development. The company began going to great lengths to ensure that they hired the right people. Not only looking for skills and experience but how an individual will adapt to the culture of the company. It was not uncommon for the company to wait for as long as 6–9 months before hiring the right person. Some companies would feel rushed or pressured into hiring someone but waiting for the right person ended up saving time and money because staff retention went up.

  3. -- As part of developing a learning culture our leader made it mandatory that senior management be included and actively involved in refresher food safety training. -- She changed the frequency of training from annual to biannual and brought the fun back into training. Training was no longer a tedious session of PowerPoint slides, but rather interactive games and workshops focusing on a maximum of 3 new learning objectives at time. Training did not end there. Every 2 weeks a new focus point was introduced that was very visual and posted all over the facility to reinforce any current change initiatives. Departmental communications such as toolbox meetings were also encouraged to highlight the focus points. Communication was less policing and more supporting with strong involvement by senior management.

  4. -- The learning culture was further strengthened by the introduction of a mentorship program and leadership skills development pathway that focused heavily on change management and soft skills development. This resulted in a win-win situation through the personal development of both the mentors and mentees.

  5. -- The leader also began to critically review all their customers’ audit requirements with the aim of not only meeting the requirements but integrating them so that they would add value to the business. This resulted in a change in mindset that moved the company from ticking boxes to proactive integration of programs to meet business needs. If the company did not feel they could implement a program 100% they would not implement it. As a result, they either accepted the non-compliance or worked with the customer on how they could meet the intent of the requirement in a different way.

  6. In order to be proactive the company could no longer react to trends and customer needs. They had to get ahead of the curve. Horizon scanning as a way to predict what macro trends were going to impact their business was introduced as part of the business continuity plans. The result of this was that it elevated their position with their customers to one of a leader and soon their customers were looking to them for guidance and direction.