If your business fails a food safety or operational audit, it can often be panic inducing and, for management, the goal often is to fix the situation as soon as they possibly can. Quite regularly, this means to do a re-audit quickly. However, re-audits are merely measurements. The process of a re-audit inherently is not designed to drive improvement, and, while measurement is valuable, measurement more frequently will only take your business so far. Re-audits are more of a passive process that does not drive long-term change or instill a culture of food safety in your business.

Why is a re-audit process not effective for long-term change?

There are a few reasons why re-audits are not as effective for sustainable improvements for your business. First, re-audits assume that everyone has the skills needed to write and then implement a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-Based, Realistic, Timely) action plan for both corrective and preventive actions. This, however, may not be accurate. While completing a re-audit may be a quick fix to ‘pass,’ many times re-audits are made too soon. This gives employees very limited time to actually implement long-lasting changes, ensure that these changes stick, and to train/retrain if needed. It certainly is important to verify that immediate issues have been addressed, but that can be done by a regional manager stopping in or having the location take a photo on a cell phone and send it through. If you are going to go through the process of a re-audit, you want to ensure that the issue has truly been corrected – so ideally it is done a number of weeks after the initial audit, ideally 6 weeks or more, rather than a number of days after the audit, for true effectiveness.

In addition, often re-audits are used as a punitive measure with disqualifying consequences for management if failed. There may even be monetary costs to locations upon failure. This can position the re-audit as threatening and anxiety-inducing amongst employees. In turn, this process may actually lower the chance that a re-audit will help drive sustainable, long-term improvement.

Removing that stigma and making re-audits a more positive experience can help re-audits be a more integrated part of a continuous improvement cycle. Top leadership should assess what they can do to support the locations, such as purchase new utensils or equipment, expedite facility repairs, support needed training and retraining, and more. However, even with support from management, there may be more helpful options such as coaching visits and guided self-assessments that can better engage location teams and promote long-term, sustainable improvement.

Supplementing re-audits with more

As discussed, re-audits are a passive measurement exercise. Therefore, rather than conducting a re-audit, activate your teams with other tools such as coaching visits and guided self-assessments. What do these types of tools look like?

In a coaching visit, a trainer will discuss issues from the most recent audit and walk teams through each standard, to ensure that employees understand the expectations. This process involves and engages teams and managers, but is trainer-led.

By contrast, a guided self-assessment is led by the team at the location. In this process, a trainer shadows the team member who typically conducts self-assessments. The trainer then coaches and advises on how to properly and accurately conduct self-assessments. In this method, the trainer provides guidance on inspection skills, understanding the line items, investigation for root cause, and taking corrective actions that address both the immediate situation and prevent reoccurrence. The trainer ensures they know how to verify that previous issues have been fully addressed. The guided self-assessment is about building skills. Once they have the skills, they can apply them across the whole facility. However, while this can be incredibly effective, it does assume that locations are already performing regular self-assessments, which may not always be the case.

The difference between a coaching visit and a guided self-assessment is a little like the difference between being a passenger and being a driver. If you’re going somewhere you’ve never been, as a passenger you’ll probably remember a lot about how to get there, but as the driver, you’ll remember it all. In a guided self-assessment, the team member is in the driver’s seat.

For both coaching visits and guided self-assessments, it is helpful to have support from management above location level, and whenever possible, to have them attend and walk along. This presence elevates the importance of the exercise, sets expectations that this mode of operation is the new normal, and allows management to carry key learning to other locations that may benefit from the information.

Laddering up to a complete culture of food safety

“Food safety culture” in recent years has become an industry buzzword that is heard frequently, but not widely understood. On a surface level, it means that your company values food safety and has made it an integral part of your mission to reduce food safety risks.

However, more times than not, food safety programs are implemented without communication as to why they exist, why they are important, and what is expected of individual locations and employees. With this attitude, paired with the passive exercise of re-audits to quickly fix problems, it is not realistic to expect that changes will be made and maintained.

When food safety becomes an indivisible part of your business, exemplified by training, retraining, and moving beyond passive and to active by way of coaching visits and guided self-assessments, you make a true cultural shift and impact long-term change. In turn, this shift not only safeguards your brand and your employees by reducing risks, but also positions your company for exponential growth and return on investment.

Vice President for The Steritech Institute at Steritech, Chris Boyles is responsible for the Consulting, Training and Quality Assurance functions within Steritech’s Brand Standards Business. He manages the technical design and implementation of food safety, workplace safety, and operational service excellence assessment programs for major brands across the restaurant, food retail, foodservice and contract dining segments. Chris is an expert in developing assessment forms that are based on objective evaluation standards and are designed to generate actionable data for highly unique clients. Chris holds a Master of Science in Microbiology and Bachelor of Science in Biology, both from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Chris also holds the Certified Professional—Food Safety credential from the National Environmental Health Association.
Food Safety, Outside Insights, Story