The Disadvantages of Paper Records

Written for the Aug/Sept issue of Food Quality and Safety

BY FRANCINE L. SHAW AND KARI HENSIEN

It’s 2020 and we live in a high-tech culture, so why are so many food businesses still using paper records to manage something as important as food quality and safety? As many have now learned, digital tools are especially critical during a crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic. As businesses shift the way they operate—dramatically elevating their safety and cleanliness protocols—companies that use digital tools will have distinct advantages as they react to and recover from this crisis.

For example, a major food and beverage brand with thousands of locations nationwide distributes a laminated COVID-19 checklist to all their units as a guide to their new protocols. While this is a good place to start, this company has set up a system that isn’t flexible and can’t be easily updated company-wide. That’s when antiquated paper-and-pen systems become a huge pitfall and, potentially, a costly liability. These problems are only made worse during a global health pandemic.

The Pitfalls of Managing Pen & Paper Quality Management Systems

Serious and concerning issues arise when you are managing quality, safety, and compliance systems at each of your many locations using manual processes:

• You can’t quickly update safety and compliance policy across all locations, which is essential when there’s a crisis such as the current pandemic.

• Critical paper records can easily be lost or misfiled, opening you up to liabilities, government sanctions, and location closures when health and safety issues arise, such as a foodborne illness.

• It’s difficult for the person in charge (PIC) to ensure that essential safety checks are being performed regularly and correctly; the checks and balances of compliance end up leaning too much on the honor system, and it’s unclear when employees need training.

• You have no visibility, and it’s difficult to collect and organize data to gain critical insights; manual data management processes are time-consuming and error-prone, and you often find insights or corrective action-preventive action (CAPA) items when it’s too late.

If you are still using pen and paper, you have probably felt the true burden it is as you’ve been responding to COVID-19 and increasing your efforts to keep employees and customers safe. The main reason for this feeling is that the pen and paper method is driven by reactive action rather than proactive action.

When you’re always responding to issues as they arise, it becomes more and more difficult to be strategic and complete critical work without being interrupted by eight hours of new issue problem solving every day. While it’s important to acknowledge that there will always be reactive pieces to a quality management system (nothing is ever perfect), it’s also clear that dedicating the time and budget to becoming more proactive in preventing issues saves time, money, reputations, and, in the long run, even lives.

This will not happen with any amount of “optimization” of pen and paper systems, because you’ll never get the visibility you need to spot trends and fix small issues before they become big problems. On the other side of the spectrum, the right digital quality management system can give you immediate visibility that can drive instant corrective actions.

Elevate Safety & Cleanliness Protocols

Using digital tools offers huge benefits. Digital tools can better gather data from all sources, including audits, assessments, checklists, certifications, and completed training, so you can track and report on critical information from all locations, providing a clear, accurate view on compliance across the enterprise. When you go digital, you can more easily solve the challenges stated above:

• You can quickly update safety and compliance policy across all locations, which is essential when there’s a crisis, such as the novel coronavirus.

• Critical records are easily found when issues, such as foodborne illness, arise.

• The PIC can more easily ensure essential safety checks are being performed regularly and correctly, and can quickly supplement training when needed.

• You have visibility as you’ve never had before with data that are quickly collected and organized to gain critical insights for proactive planning.

Benefits of Quality Management Software in a COVID-19 World

This “new normal” is our new reality, not just a temporary situation. Because of the virus, you must change the way you operate, train employees on new protocols, ensure compliance, and implement corrective actions. And, you must manage these protocols on a consistent, ongoing basis, knowing that lives are at stake if you and your employees have a misstep.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world completely, and it’s essential to transition from “the way we’ve always done things” to a whole new way of operating, including using digital tools. In our experience, food and beverage companies often resist technology. These businesses often have a systemic belief that their manual systems are fine because it’s “the way we’ve always done things.” Additionally, resistance is even fiercer when they believe that digital tools are too expensive, cumbersome, or difficult to implement. Truthfully, digital tools are now affordable, accessible, and user-friendly, and companies of every size and budget can find a digital solution. Digital tools, such as quality management software and auditing apps, allow companies to better manage our new reality and help boost their bottom line. The companies that are doing amazing jobs with the new, elevated coronavirus protocols have some important things in common: They’re using digital tools and being transparent about their commitment to enhanced safety and cleanliness protocols.

Many grocery store chains are excelling at these efforts. They are identifying people on each shift to clean and disinfect, concentrating on high touch areas; implementing new consumer traffic patterns, such as one-way traffic in aisles and proper social distancing; and offering free masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer at the door. They’re taking a proactive and authentic approach to safety culture, showing they care about safety, and are taking proper steps to mitigate risks. Through these actions, they’re reassuring a nervous public that their facilities are safe.

As businesses shift the way they operate—dramatically elevating their safety and cleanliness protocols—companies that use digital tools will have distinct advantages as they react to and recover from this crisis.

Going Digital

Digital tools can help you implement new protocols, train staff, audit efforts, assess data, ensure compliance, and trigger on-the-spot as well as long-term corrective actions, as needed. As you adopt digital tools, here are a few tips for navigating our new normal that can be managed via digital quality management systems:

• Elevate your cleaning and disinfecting efforts. Digital tools can track cleaning and disinfecting activities to ensure compliance.

• Implement COVID-19 safety protocols.

Use digital tools to enable instant visibility and transparency to gain critical insights across the enterprise (e.g., data can be viewed in a rolled-up manner to look at the operation as a whole or used to drill down to individual locations and areas to gain localized insights).

• Educate employees and customers.

Send frequent emails to employees, customers, vendors, and other key audiences explaining the steps you’re taking to follow recommended COVID-19 guidelines. Explain how they can be part of the solution, and reiterate these messages on your website and via social media posts.

• Train employees regularly. Utilize tech tools to provide regular reminders and updates to your staff throughout each shift.

• Get information from reputable websites. COVID-19 information is being constantly updated. CDC, FDA, WHO, and NIH offer ever-evolving information on COVID protocols. The RizePoint COVID-19 Resource Center updates COVID-19 information regularly, using data from authoritative agencies and distilling the information into digestible talking points for managers to relay to their teams.

• Ensure compliance. Put policies and systems in place, educating employees about what to do, when, and why. Use digital audits to track compliance and take on-the-spot and long-term corrective actions as necessary.

• Build a better safety culture. Elevate your existing safety culture by enhancing systems (e.g., transitioning from antiquated paper systems to utilizing more accurate, integrated tech tools). This is a must-have effort and no longer optional.

Otherwise, the health and safety of your employees, customers, and business are in danger.