“Whistle while you work” may have been the mantra for the Seven Dwarfs, but a lot has changed in motivating a work force since Snow White’s release in 1937.
Three basic ingredients to leadership include knowing what you want, who can give it to you and how to get it. One dynamic executive has orchestrated harmony among his sizeable workforce of more than 20,000 workers, achieving and maintaining food safety operations at more than 500 food and beverage locations. Walt Disney World Co. (Orlando, Fla.) has long had futuristic leadership, beginning with its founder who convinced us that once upon a time, the world would be a better place, as it was implied with the futuristic Epcot hydroponics food farming.
Food grown without dirt may have once been unthinkable, but the vision of Walt Disney has always been one of the futures and his legacy carries on in the 21st Century through Frank Yiannas, who is no newcomer to recognition for his food quality involvement and achievements.
As Disney’s technical director of safety and health, Yiannas oversees all food safety programs and other public health functions for one of the largest entertainment and hospitality complexes in the world. He believes he is blessed to work in such a highly creative environment, and believes even more strongly that his staff does more than a series of daily procedures.
Yiannas is also a nationally-recognized speaker and is known for his innovative approaches to food safety.
He recently served as a keynote speaker at the Food Quality Award ceremonies last October. His presentation provided a glimpse into changes necessary for the 21st Century, most importantly, the need to create a culture of food safety reflected in the actions of each employee. While there will always be the battle between the old traditions and cutting-edge change, Yiannas strives for a change-friendly environment.
“We must be adaptable and amenable to change in order to positively impact food safety,” he says, adding that leading a staff is a lot like parenting a family. “We are trained to detect what’s wrong, but what really gains better results? As a parent, I learned how to praise four to 10 times more than criticize.”
The success of Disney’s food safety culture is recipe that combines clear food safety performance expectations, education and training of all employees, who are affectionately called cast members, on food safety, development of a comprehensive food safety communication plan, development of performance goals, staff accountability and measurement systems and consistent consequences and rewards for food safety performance and behaviors.
Staff recognition and rewards include the company’s Food Safety Partner Award, a highly-regarded glass sculpture that generates incentive and pride in “creating the magical memories” for guests.
During the October presentation, Yiannas integrated a quote from the Roman satirist Petronius: “We tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing and a wonderful method» it can be for creating the illusion of progress…”
“While food safety is magical, it is not magic,” Yiannas says ‘We take a holistic approach and our philosophy, is from “farm to fork,” highlighting the importance of carefully screening and selecting hundreds of vendors who comply with food safety guidelines. It’s being aware of trends in food allergies and microbial issues. You can do everything perfect each day, but if the supplier is bas….”
Yiannas says he tries to be a “bit of a futurist.”
“It’s important for me as a food safety professional to not only predict, but to shape the future,” he says. I firmly believe that strategy precedes structure.”
Always on the lookout for emerging trends, Yiannas is consistently striving to improve methods to enhance surveillance to detect foodborne pathogens to prevent illnesses or outbreaks.
“The Disney food safety culture is also founded in training new cast members and facilitating checks in the restaurants each and every day,” he says. “We emphasize to our new cast members the importance of preserving the Disney magic and they learn firsthand by being a part of that culture. We want leaders and not just technicians.”
He also points out that that the law does not require an HACCP plan; that Disney complies voluntarily and proactively.
“HACCP is a step in the right direction. Certainly there need to be standards – through company procedures and regulatory compliance as well as the implementation of technology,” Yiannas adds.
Newly hired Disney food service cast members, Yiannas says, quickly realize that Disney is a big place with an even bigger reputation to uphold.
“On your very first day you will go to Disney University and you will go through a program called Traditions, where you learn the company’s core value,” says Yiannas, who has been with Disney for 17 years. “I like to say this is where we’re going to sprinkle you with pixie dust.”
As a risk manager, Yiannas says the first day for a new employee needs to be rather impacting.
“The first impression you make about the organization is real important,” he says. “We’re going to tell you about how important safety is, and you will learn that the message of safety begins with you and you share in the responsibility.”
The second day, the cast member begins training on their specific job function, whether they are a line cook, a server, food prep, cashier—anything that is unique to food and beverage service.
Food safety training, Yiannas says, is all customized and was developed by Disney in-house.
“The training is very user-friendly. We offer it in multiple languages to our cast members,” he says. “And I know that it said a lot, but there are a lot of programs out there that try to make microbiologists out of food service people.”
Food safety training, Yiannas explains, needs to be risk-based, with the goal of minimizing or even eliminating foodborne illness from the picture. It is also critical to understand the differences between education and training.
“Education is teaching people why food safety is important; food has to be cooked at certain temperatures or else people will get ill. That’s education,” he says. “Food safety training is how to do it and what you need to do that with food safety education. Cast members go through that at Disney University and then once a new employee arrives at their job, they are trained on that specific piece of equipment or set of procedures. You’ll get specific, on-the-job training.”
Training, however, isn’t the silver bullet, Yiannas warns.
“Making sure the expectations are understood and documented is also important,” he says. “They need to have a clear understanding of expectations—regulatory, HACCP, that’s the first element.”
The second and third elements are training cast members on expectations and continually communicating and reinforcing the importance of food safety protocols.
“I can walk into an establishment, any establishment, and know right away if food safety is part of the culture,” Yiannas says. “If I walk in and I do not see things posted on the walls or if I don’t hear people talking about it, then I know food safety is not part of that culture.”
The fourth element, he adds, measuring food safety and HACCP activity. “It’s measuring everything that we’re doing and forming accountability goals,” he says. “Are we getting the desired results? It’s about providing feedback, positive and constructive, and reinforcing the values.”
Disney’s cast members are regularly provided with a food safety score card that heralds their accomplishments and notes areas that they need to improve upon.
“Imagine going bowling and not keeping score,” Yiannas says. “Would the bowling experience be motivational? How would you measure your performance?”
Training, he reiterates, is only one piece of the puzzle and recognizing it as such is important.
Equally important is the use of information technology, and Disney’s food service cast uses two platforms, the CAFÉ and CHEF systems.
“We’re strong believers in information technology,” Yiannas says. “As a food safety professional, you need information technology and more importantly, you are only knowledgeable when you have information to act on. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
CAFÉ, which stands for “creatively analyzing and foods and environments,” is a HACCP-based system.
“It’s the central nervous system of the food safety and health department,” Yiannas says, adding that CAFÉ was developed internally at Disney.
Disney’s team food safety professionals are all armed with PDAs that come equipped with built-in thermo-couplers for temperature monitoring. “The device replaces the clipboard and paper and pencil,” Yiannas says, adding that there is still too much of a reliance on paper.
The other information technology platform, the CHEF System, is for auditing and inspections and was also developed in-house. CHEF stands of “computerized HACCP for enhanced food safety.”
“We’re doing HACCP totally on PDAs,” Yiannas says. “The CHEF PDA will actually give you a visible and audible alarm when it’s time to do a HACCP check. For example, I put the probe into the chowder, and if I’m below critical limits, it alerts and guides me through corrective actions, whether it’s reheating it or discarding it.”
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All of the information is then uploaded to a Web site and accessible from a PC. “And it’s almost in real time,” Yiannas says.
A key emerging technology for the 21st Century that greatly interests Yiannas is pulse field gel electrophoresis, or PFGE, which enables scientists to determine the relatedness of infectious strains of bacteria.
While this technology is presently only available in a limited number of state public health laboratories, it opens a pathway to prevent future foodborne outbreaks. The benefit is that it can identify microbial isolates from varied parts of states linking what could connect to a common food source or process.
Yiannas’s contributions to food safety extend beyond his employer. He is council chair of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP), In 2001, Walt Disney World Co. received the IAFP’s Black Pearl Award in recognition for the company’s “outstanding achievement in corporate excellence in food safety and quality.”
Yiannas says their satisfaction for “receiving an award for a job well done is a great honor anytime, but the … Black Pearl Award was especially meaningful because of the enduring ideals it embodies.”
Said Walt Disney once upon a time, “Courage is the main quality of leadership, in my opinion, no matter where it is exercised. Usually it implies some risk – especially in new undertakings.”
Disney also said that it also takes courage to “initiate something and to keep it going – pioneering and adventurous spirit to blaze new ways, often, in our land of opportunity.” –FQ
Dorothy O is a freelance writer based in Richboro, Pa.
Editorial Director Mark A. DeSorbo contributed to this report.