When employees, managers, and leaders feel personally committed to food safety, they will do the right thing even when nobody is watching, even when it is not the cheapest or fastest approach. A strong organizational culture can help create and sustain that commitment. Over time, good food safety practices become the normal way of doing things and a source of personal pride.

To build and maintain a strong food safety culture, leaders must not only demonstrate their commitment with their words and actions, but also make sure that their company’s policies, systems, and processes incentivize good food safety decisions and behavior at every level of the organization.

Traditionally, companies and regulators have depended on training, inspections, audits, and testing to ensure food safety. Training is a vital part of food safety management, but knowledge is not always a strong driver of behavior. Inspections, audits, and testing are all necessary, but they identify problems after the fact and depend on fear of detection and penalties to incentivize compliance.

A strong culture is necessary to ensure people make the right decisions every day at every level of the organization. In the long run, a robust food safety culture will prevent accidents that harm consumers and will reduce the likelihood of scandals that destroy brand value.

Organizational Culture
Organizational culture reflects the self-sustaining patterns of feeling, thinking, believing, and behaving that determine “how things are done around here.” It is both determined and characterized by a set of formal and informal elements that we refer to as the organization’s “DNA.”

Organizational DNA           
The formal DNA elements are the visible and concrete tools for realigning a company’s operating model—they can be precisely articulated and codified.

• Structure is reflected in the lines and boxes of the organization chart and how they are connected. Organization charts are usually designed around customers, products, geography, or functions, but also communicate power and status.

• Decision rights specify who has the authority to make which decisions and under what circumstances. They can help clarify where responsibility lies. Decision rights can be made clearer by issuing rules for commonly faced operational situations for each position. 

• Motivators include the objectives and incentives defined by the organization for individuals and teams. Motivators include rewards such as compensation and recognition. Ideally, these align the interests and efforts of all employees and suppliers towards effectively achieving the company’s objectives.

• Information includes performance metrics, and the communication of expectations and progress. It is vital to the coordination of activities. Organizations should specify who needs to know what and have mechanisms to manage and transfer knowledge.  

For each of the formal elements, there exists a corresponding informal DNA element that is embedded in the organization’s culture. Although less tangible and harder to wield than the formal elements, an organization’s informal elements can have an even more profound impact on execution, because they directly influence workplace habits and relationships.

• Norms are the organization’s unwritten rules and unofficial values, standards, and expectations. Although not codified, taught, or measured, they are firmly established, everyone understands them, and they govern the way people experience their work. Once established, these are very hard to change, but very powerful if you succeed in adjusting them.

• Commitments are the aspirations employees have for themselves and the organization. They are informal complements to motivators and, like motivators, can be both positive and negative.

• Mindsets are ways of thinking, deeply held beliefs and unspoken assumptions that are prevalent in every organization. They can help people make sense of information, but they can also contribute to “group think.”

• Networks are webs of direct personal connection, for example, lunch friends, sports teams, interest groups, and new-hire cohorts. These can often exert more influence than the lines and boxes of the organization chart.

Culture Change
The more targeted a culture change initiative is, the greater the likelihood of success will be.

Beliefs, feelings, and ways of thinking are powerful and lasting drivers of behavior, but these are difficult to measure and even more difficult to change. We recommend that companies focus on changing behaviors; these changes can immediately improve outcomes and influence beliefs, feelings, and thinking over time. Culture change initiatives should focus on the “moments that matter,” the specific interactions and decision points that have a disproportionate effect on food safety outcomes.

When planning a culture initiative, companies must select the most appropriate formal levers of change. These are relatively straightforward because they use visible and documented formal DNA elements. Articulating the value and priority of food safety in the company’s strategy is a first step, but it must be followed up by cascading the updated priorities down through training content, Standard Operating Procedures, job descriptions, performance metrics, compensation, etc. 

Informal levers require more creative thinking and thoughtful implementation because they use elements of organizational DNA that are generally undocumented. Informal levers use networks that are not found on the organization chart. They use pride and empathy as motivators. Informal levers create unwritten rules and peer pressure that support the company’s objectives.

Companies should work with key influencers whose roles are connected to the targeted behavior and whose demonstrated values are aligned with those of the company. The power and identity of influencers is not always reflected on the organization chart.

It is important to make both rational and emotional appeals. Feelings, beliefs, and thinking can have more influence on behavior than rules or procedures. Rational appeals build understanding of why change is needed, while emotional appeals inspire commitment and action.

Food Safety Culture Framework
We have identified six organizational elements and additional sub-elements that have the greatest impact on food safety culture. Together, these six elements form the food safety culture framework. Each of the elements can either facilitate or hinder the development of a mature food safety culture and the achievement of food safety objectives. 

We have also identified more than 50 organizational behaviors and traits that are found in companies with a mature food safety culture. We have identified more than 15 key decisions and interactions that typically have a disproportionate impact on food safety outcomes. A food safety culture assessment can help determine which of these “moments that matter” should be the focus of a company’s culture change efforts.

The Time for Action
Corporate culture assessments and initiatives are often launched in reaction to certain events, such as food safety scandals, regulatory changes, or increased government scrutiny. Best-in-class companies, however, do not wait for a crisis to address their food safety culture. They regularly measure their people’s attitudes and beliefs, and proactively address any weaknesses or misalignment with their stated vision and values. Looking ahead, successful companies will take a proactive approach by setting organizational culture goals that help achieve their strategic objectives.

Samie Wan is a partner and Brian Marterer is a senior manager with PwC China’s Food Supply & Integrity Services.