I have been hearing the phrase “return to normal” a lot lately. Mostly it’s used in a joyous manner, celebrating that we’ve almost broken the hold COVID-19 has held on us for more than a year. I like it when it’s used that way. But I’d like to offer that maybe we don’t want to go back to “normal.” I propose that we move forward to “better.”

Let’s first think about what that old normal was: a divisive political environment; the resurgence of measles in the United States because of unvaccinated children; foods still causing disease outbreaks; foods still being recalled. And on an individual note for quality managers, we still had to remind our employees about good manufacturing practices (GMPs) daily. I know we can all do better.

“What would better look like, though?” you might ask. As quality managers, our two primary goals are consistency and continuous improvement. As food safety managers, our goal is zero food safety incidents. Better, then, would mean achieving these goals — consistently producing safe products, consistently verifying that we are doing what we said we’d do, consistently looking for areas where there is potential for improvement.

Sadly, food safety and quality managers are not responsible for the individual actions that create these results. The true responsibility lies with each individual in the production process. We rely on individual employees to follow the rules, comply with standard operating procedures (SOPs), operate equipment as it was designed and to have the personal integrity to always do the right thing. This is company culture, and it’s our task to create an environment where better can be achieved.

What is the right thing to do, and how do we make it easier for workers to do that instead of cutting corners? Think about the simple GMP of handwashing. I’m betting you’ve found it easier in the past year to get workers to wash their hands.

Everyone has learned what viruses or diseases our hands may transmit, and that washing them routinely helps prevent illness for themselves and their coworkers. I’m hoping that it’s gotten easier to ensure all GMPs are followed because of that. Everyone learning about personal hygiene can certainly be the springboard for educating staff about other areas within the plant management scheme. We can build from that one area so that all employees are now concerned and educated about the best mitigation methods in other work areas. We can create the awareness and compliance in other areas of our businesses.

I believe that employees who understand the reasoning behind requirements create an environment that has the proper food safety and quality culture. It is our job to provide employees with that understanding. We need to share the “why” behind each SOP and GMP. We need to carry this ideal forward each day, creating the awareness that comes from knowledge. Our task then becomes guiding the enlightened employees as they carry the culture into their daily tasks.

With this culture, everyone keeps their work space clean and tidy, everyone wears hair restraints properly all the time, everyone helps to keep the doors and windows closed. Compliance with all your GMPs will be better.

Remember, if the company goes out of business because one employee doesn’t do the right thing, everyone loses their job — not just that one worker. We need to bring all of our employees together with the common goal of everyone keeping their job because the company is staying in business. Now is the time to build on what the pandemic has taught us, creating a culture and business environment where we achieve more together.

For me, going back to normal is just a way of saying that we’re going to accept the issues and failures of the past. We can mark this as the moment when we began to work together, find common ground, improve programs and eliminate food poisonings together with education and understanding. History will mark this as the time when we decided to learn from the past and create a worthwhile, better future for ourselves, our workers and our workplaces, maybe even for our society. Now is our moment! Now is the opportunity to get to “better.”