From time to time, most food production businesses face product quality, (food) safety, environmental and other business issues. If the company has a strong culture of excellence, most of these will remain internal, but might still upset its supply stability. In other companies they will spread widely outside their borders, resulting in complaints from many customers and in the worst case even product recalls or actions by authorities.
In short, if you want to make an impact in an organization and drive results, you must set up a system to manage and prevent issues. This is necessary to prevent them from reaching customers and a prerequisite for quality and food safety.
As Warren Buffet said: “You only have to do very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”
In this article we will discuss the necessary steps to achieve this.
Before you start managing issues, you must first define them. In fact, in most management systems, issues are not defined. Rather, most companies have a three-level approach when it comes to product-related issues, consisting of blocked stock, complaints and product recalls, where the first is an internal item and the others are external ones. The same holds true for most other departments as well.
Here, by contrast, we’ll define product related issues as follows:
- all food safety-related complaints
- repeating complaints for quality reasons (within a certain period and linked to the same product category, production equipment or raw material)
- complaints with major customers (as you don’t want to upset these)
- blocked stock for food safety reasons
- blocked stock for repeating quality reasons (within a certain time period and linked to the same product category, production equipment or raw material)
You should manage these issues with extra attention and set up a clear escalation mechanism for them, as they might eventually blow up to a full-sized recall.
Graphically, the difference between the traditional approach and the new approach can be depicted as shown in the figure below.
A similar approach as depicted above for product related issues can be developed and implemented for all other departments and functions as well. In the remainder of this document we will further elaborate on product related issue management – of course this can be translated to any other area of business.
Issue management & follow-up
The key to proper issue management is pro-activeness from the start. Especially with food safety issues, time is a company’s worst enemy, because they might grow out of hand quickly: consumers might be affected, authorities might get involved and before you know it you are facing a full-blown recall or a major issue with (national) authorities.
As soon as an organization becomes aware of a food safety-related issue either from complaints or in the blocked stock, it must be brought to the attention of the Quality Manager, although that doesn’t mean he/she will be personally responsible for it.
A good practice is to keep track of all issues, which can be done simply in Excel. Each issue should have an owner, who will coordinate all required actions and report back to the Quality Manger. In very small organizations the Quality Manager will often be the owner as well, but it’s still good to use the Excel file to bring all relevant information into one location. Next to the Excel file you might want to create a folder structure with one issue per folder, to store all documents. This will make it easier to find information, especially if the issue evolves into a recall.
Here you can download an Issue Management Template. During the weekly update meeting, you should discuss the items in the columns for each issue you keep track of:
A. Issue Number – The unique number identifier.
B. Date of Issue – The date it became known to the organization.
C. Brief Description of Issue – One-line description of the product and / or customer involved.
D. Issue Details (including update) – The details of the issue, including a weekly short status update by the issue owner.
E. Related Product(s) – Names of all products involved.
F. Related Customer(s) – Names of all customers involved.
G. Estimated Impact ($) — estimated financial impact of the issue, as it does not need to be 100% accurate we use several classes.
H. Final impact – once an issue has been either successfully mitigated or (hopefully not) did result in a crisis, the true costs to the organization will be known. These should be logged as well, enabling management to collect performance trend data.
I. Status. It can either be NEW; In control, ongoing; In control, winding down; CLOSED; Out of control; Potential recall; Recall.
J. The issue owner (not necessarily the Quality Manager).
K. Agreed action numbers. Just put the number of agreed actions here. Their description will be logged in a separate action tracking file / tab – You can download the action tracking file via this link.
If you manage each issue proactively and follow up on them on a weekly basis, you will see their financial impact going down. If you execute preventive actions consistently, you will also see fewer issues overall.
The connection between issue management and corrective and preventive actions will be discussed in the last section of this article.
After each weekly meeting, the updated file should be shared with senior management, to keep them in the loop and have an escalation mechanism in place in case an issue develops into a recall or a major clash with one or more of the company’s customer(s). Typically, these are managers of Production, Planning, Sales, Finance and Purchasing departments. Issues at hand and their status should never be a surprise to them.
For the escalation mechanism you can use a relatively simple process as depicted on the left.
All food safety-related internal issues or complaints, repeating internal quality issues, repeating customer complaints or complaints with major customers must be escalated to issue management-level.
In the weekly update you can then discuss all the actions taken and their current status.
The only important thing is that owners inform the Quality Manager as soon as possible if the issue is escalating towards a real or potential recall, without waiting for the weekly meeting.
We won’t go into more detail on the crisis management process in this article, as most companies have one in place.
The strong advantage of managing issues at an intermediate level between “normal” operations and a recall is that it gives much more structure to pro-active management and recall prevention.
Link to CAPA management and failure costs
In the section about issue management we mentioned a separate Excel file to keep track of all agreed actions. This is a useful approach if no formal action management system exists in the organization. In that case, the same Excel file should be used to keep track of all the corrective and preventive actions as well.
It is important, though, to prioritise issue management actions. If they’re not executed, issues may eventually become recalls.
Once an issue is under control and winding down or better even – closed, you might consider migrating all the remaining actions to the more generic CAPA action list.
In this process it’s still important to judge each action for its potential impact on the full closure of the issue. All crucial actions should remain on the tracking list and be discussed on a weekly basis. All the other actions can be moved to the generic CAPA list and be prioritized there. This way you ensure the organization is making the best use of its time and financial resources to prevent issues from exploding into upsetting customers and recall situations.
The positive side-effect of monitoring the potential and effective (final) financial impact of issues is that it shows the immediate value of this approach to the company and – more importantly – to senior management. You will find this is a strong argument for keeping this process in place and will help you tremendously in getting senior management to agree to your overall approach to risk management and mitigation.