JORGE HERNANDEZ , Chief Food Safety Officer, Wholesome International

I think that when Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher,  said, “Change is the only constant in life,” he was thinking of the 21st  century food industry.

There hasn’t been a time in recent memory when food safety and quality assurance professionals have had to deal with so much change. From frequent changes in food ingredients to novel food sources; newly identified risks in foods to changes in vehicles for outbreaks and in regulations. All playing against a changing background on how we work, who we work with, and how we go to market. Changes that, playing all at once, are forcing us not only to do things differently, but to think differently — including in how we lead.

In this world of constant changes, it is not unusual for us to be asked to help develop a new food, approve a new supplier, source from a new country, help an old supplier “improve,” execute a new program, implement changes to meet new regulations, or simply use captured data to implement continuous improvement to established processes. Sometimes it is because your organization is struggling in the market or dealing with yet another merger or acquisition; your team is tackling a new corporate direction; or there is another departmental reorganization. The point is, we all face change frequently — staring into its beady, persistent, and often scary, little eyes.

So, when I was asked to write this column, I decided to focus on the people side of managing change vs. the technical side of implementing it. After all, we learn the technical side of food safety in our training, but there is no “official” training for how to deal with the people side. I guess we are supposed to learn it as we grow in our careers.

However, it is my experience that long-term success of implementing food safety can only be obtained when both the technical and the people sides are considered and handled. More and more, I feel that my value to my organization is not on what I know, but on what I can implement.

How do we lead through change when there is so much change?  Doing it gracefully can seem impossible at times. You don’t know where the next twist or turn will take you. Even worse, your team might feel even more anxious than you, because they assume they know less about the future than you do.

The important thing is to not let change overwhelm you, and as a leader, not let yourself overwhelm your team. So, the next time you’re faced with a change, handle it in stride with these seven basic principles that have helped me well:

  1. Change Sucks. Yes, recognize that change is not fun and requires alterations and adjustments on people, sometimes requiring replacement of old habits with new. Even when for the better, easier, or faster, change requires us to remember that  you can’t force people to change, you can only help them want to. The sooner you accept this idea, the sooner you’ll adjust your approach, and the further you are likely to go with implementation.
  2. Up, Down, Sideways. Be inclusive and open minded. Don’t assume that only the people directly affected by the change need to be engaged. Go as far up, down, and sideways in the organization as you can to communicate the change. Going up will help you get the support; going down will help with implementation. But going sideways will help avoid pitfalls. You’ll be surprised how often a change can impact what seem to be completely unrelated areas. Listen carefully to everyone, as it will help you identify barriers you’ll have to navigate in implementation.
  3. Clarity.  Communicate what you know — and what you don’t know — about the change as clearly as possible. Include  the reason and the purpose (regulatory, food safety, quality, cost reduction, compliance, other).
  4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Communication is not a one-time effort, it’s an all-times effort. Do your best to communicate all key details, deadlines, and objectives as you find out new information. Keeping everyone informed will help build trust, alleviate worries, and facilitate cooperation throughout your organization. Reiterate that you are available to assist in any way you can and encourage all share their concerns and worries.
  5. Capability for Change. Provide all job specifics, training, tools, and success metrics. Most importantly, provide the time needed to assimilate and execute the change. Many forget that it takes time to replace old habits and form new ones. All changes are disruptive; so whenever possible, avoid the pitfall of scheduling too many at once. Stagger them as best as you can, and keep all informed about what is coming  so nobody is caught off guard.
  6. Measure. Include a step to measure if the change was adopted as planned and if it met its purpose as designed. Did you get the regulatory, food safety, quality, cost reduction, compliance, etc., that was needed and expected?
  7. Learn the Lesson. Every change brings new lessons — at minimum, what worked and what didn’t. Learn from both so next time you need to implement a change you can be not only more efficient, but also more effective.

Today’s food safety and quality assurance professionals need to learn not only how to lead in times of a single change, but in times of multiple changes. These will test our determination and leadership, but we must adapt, learn, and lead at these crucial times. It is in these times that our customers, industry, organizations, and teams need our leadership the most.

As  W. Edwards Deming  said, “Learning is not compulsory ... but neither is survival.”