Missing the Mark

Features - Business Management

What makes one company succeed and another fail in achieving and sustaining a successful product integrity program?

February 8, 2013

Throughout my career in the food safety business as an employee, inspector, and educator, I have seen many plants succeed and many fail at achieving and sustaining successful product integrity programs. After looking back on this history and lengthy discussions with others, I have come to the conclusion that the differences between the companies that consistently succeed and those that routinely fail is their understanding of the importance of food product integrity programs and their contribution to the bottom line.

Those that consistently fail at achieving their goals of passing inspections or audits implement programs solely for the purpose of obtaining a certificate or achieving minimal compliance with regulations or client requirements. Their programs are notoriously weak and are buffed up for the audit to prove they have a program. Cleaning the plant is done once or twice a year, just to pass an audit, then the operation returns to its normal, marginal performance until the next audit comes around, all the while demonstrating a lack of commitment on the part of management and demoralizing personnel.

Those that consistently succeed have a different mindset. Their efforts are poured into developing programs and following policies for the betterment of the company and the people who work there. They believe that compliance is good for business and the return is good business. Employees engage in their roles of making efforts to improve. Many benefit from a cost-effective approach and success of the company by enjoying a better work environment where they can depend on coworkers to do their part—the first time, thus reducing the workload by not having to repeat tasks until they are done correctly.

There are many names for programs that have been promoted over the years. We have been through TQM, Lean Manufacturing, and 5S, to name just a few. One reason why these programs failed is that they were not self-directed. Employees did not self-evaluate the benefit-specific tasks to improve their work environment, but rather had them forced upon them by ill-informed management. This leads to a contentious work environment where a lack of cooperation rules.

One facility with which I had the opportunity to work represents how good intentions can go wrong. Due to pressure from customers to improve their organization and implement programs that would facilitate change, management decided to implement a 5S program. Upper management was very enthusiastic about the progress they had made and impressed upon me how much of a change I would see on the production floor. However, when I hit the floor to see how it was working, it was a mess. Things were a disorganized, to say the least, and people were unhappy.

After digging, I learned that the facility manager had decided that 5S was going to be implemented and came down to the production floor to instruct area personnel about where everything was going to be placed. No input was accepted, it was just a “set it up the way I say” situation. All that was accomplished was a total alienation of employees toward what could have been a valuable improvement for the facility.

What this manager failed to understand was that the 5S system, like many others, was designed to be implemented in steps through which employees gain knowledge to realize the benefit of the program and over time as they assess and organize their work areas for the optimum efficiency and needs they all share. Forcing a program like this onto employees without regard for their needs, simply because it was suggested by a customer, made it impossible to implement a meaningful program within the facility. There is always a significant difference between saying you have a program and actually having one.

Think about all of the other programs food plants have in place. Are your prerequisite, HACCP, food defense, and other programs being used to benefit your business or simply to obtain a certificate and avoid regulatory intervention? Not using and improving programs every day makes you shortsighted, and your business suffers. Too many costly mistakes are made and repeated over and over. Each event has a serious impact on the business through disruption of production and possible issues with meeting a customer’s needs.

Employees quickly recognize the inconsistencies with a need to comply with policies and procedures. Once this slide begins, it tends to accelerate to a point where recovery is very expensive due to the damage done to the physical resources and general attitude of the employees. Great employees tend to leave out of frustration, turnover rates escalate, and the plant is always in a “train the new person” mode and not able to focus on making quality safe products. When it gets to the point where a “Just press the green button” mentality exists, the facility has lost control and expenses run out of control.

As with any major project in a facility, one has to evaluate the cost/benefit aspects. Purchasing a new system to extend a product line or capture a new segment of the market requires an investment and a defined-return expectation. Changing the attitude and conditions also requires an investment. To change the attitude and culture of a facility requires a plan, time, and resources.

The first step requires that management at all levels decide what they want accomplished. At this point, they should already have a list of negatives that need to be corrected. Inefficiencies, high turnover of employees, repeated failures on things that should be expected to succeed are typical targets. However, unless management is prepared to execute on the commitment and remain committed even through a few failures, it will start to revert back to the old ways.

This stage of the process will likely require outside assistance. Someone needs to come in and assess the current status of your facility and help develop realistic expectations and a timeline for these changes to occur. An experienced individual or group of professionals can often accelerate the transition by being able to identify key indicators against which accomplishments can be measured. This prevents the “shot in the dark” approach where resources and goodwill easily can be wasted.

To put this in perspective, let’s say we have two drivers in two different countries. Both drivers are traveling at 60 mph and come to a 30-mph zone. Here is where the educational and cultural aspects come into play. The driver in “Country A” will likely take his or her foot off the accelerator, tap the brake to coast down to 30 mph, and continue on without disruption or real loss of time. The driver in “Country B,” on the other hand, will see the 30-mph zone, approach, slam on the brakes, come to a near stop, and then continue on. The difference is that speed bumps have to be installed in “Country B” to force compliance with the rules.

Compare the differences. Which driver is the most efficient and timely? Who had to use more gas to get to the destination? Who had higher repair bills to maintain the vehicle?

Is this an accurate description of your plant? People do things because we force them to do them or because they know the benefits of doing things correctly all the time. Find and eliminate your speed bumps. Educate personnel and change the culture of your facility so you never need them.

Employee education is a key component of the transition. Just as they learned how not to perform, they also have to learn how and why they have to change behavior to embrace the changes as a personal benefit. This takes time because they have to witness successful change and improvement to truly buy into the program. This is why management has to be equally educated and committed to the changes. Some changes will likely be a little painful, but the return is well worth it.

One key element that must be implemented before the education process begins is the development of clear and reasonable programs and procedures that meet your needs. Involving employees in this process is a great way to get them to buy into the programs and claim ownership of the programs. It also elevates a sense of trust and respect for the ability to contribute to the change. This alone can greatly reduce the transition time.

There is an investment required to accomplish these changes. As with any investment, there has to be measurable returns. How many rejected shipments can you eliminate? What kind of reduction in production waste can be realized? How many repeat tasks can be eliminated? Are you generating new business because of increased efficiency and improved reputation in the marketplace? Any number of economic formulas can be used to determine the return. Ultimately though, the realization comes through a simple understanding that an approach to reducing costs is just good business.


The author is Head of Food Safety Education, AIB International.