Providing the 'whys' essential for success

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Remember when you were growing up and you’d ask the infamous one-word question “why?” when one of your parents asked you to do something a certain way? Most times when I asked that question, my mom’s or dad’s answer was pretty much: “Because I said so!” This was never a great learning experience.

Looking back over the years, I realize that most of my best teachers weren’t professional teachers – rather they were friends, colleagues and former bosses who were exceptional and gifted in explaining the whys behind doing a job a certain way. They were patient, thorough, didn’t leave room for interpretation – and always asked if I had any more questions on the matter at hand.

While recently fielding a plant story, I interviewed a number of executives at Leesburg, Ind.-based Maple Leaf Farms. One of them was August Konie, director of quality assurance. Of the approximately 20 years he has worked in food processing, 17 have been spent working in the poultry business.

I was particularly pleased with his response when I asked him what his major challenge was at the company. “I thought about this question fairly hard…to me it is teaching people the ‘whys’ [behind why things are done a certain way on the plant floor]. You can have a person performing a job function or skill-set all day long. But unless they understand the why [behind what they are doing], they won’t become empowered people to be able to make good decisions when it comes to quality and food safety. Why are we doing this job this way? Why is it important to keep product cold? Many whys come into play — I think that’s my greatest challenge.”

Explaining the whys of a job is particularly important to new hires. “If only you can put training programs against the whys… there’s also always the attrition process going on as well as getting management on that same page connecting it all,” he observed. “My explaining the whys includes this vision of creating partnerships. A partnership is important to me because that marries up customer or consumer expectations with what we’re actually doing out on the plant floor.

“When those two things marry and I have all my people understanding that from the plant floor, they can produce the highest quality-level of product,” he added. “They’re empowered to challenge things and take action if they see something going the wrong way.”

Konie said during his career he has worked with very few people who seemed to be working only to collect a paycheck. “People really want to do a good job and to be conscientious,” he continued. “They understand what they’re doing not only involves the food their children eat, but also what other families and people eat worldwide. So, it’s giving them the tools to understand why they are doing something that’s important to the application of it — and then they will be into it.”

He also strives to get his plant employees to understand what’s going on at the back of the house at restaurants. “This is super-duper powerful — to be able to take some of our employees to the back of the house kitchen and show them how the chefs are using the products they make,” he said. “Some may be confused about how the chef is using our product with the appetizer line, for example. But once they start seeing what the chefs are doing, after they see the product after it has been transported through two distribution centers and then into the back door — it’s powerful. You create the partnership, which creates advocates for consumers out on the line. If I have everyone with the common goal of looking out for the consumer and customer, it will lead to a great plate experience.”

It takes the knowledge of an expert combined with the patience of a saint to be an effective and extraordinary teacher. Teachers encourage questions and interaction. At the same time, it also requires your employees to listen closely to what’s being covered. This is a tough row to hoe inside loud and fast-paced meat and poultry plants — but the time and efforts spent thoroughly explaining the whys behind job responsibilities and encouraging interaction will be well worth your time.

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