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After the conference, it’s time to reflect on the common trends of moving forward after a year of disruption and how technology and auditors will continue to move GFSI forward, especially in terms of trust and confidence in auditing.

My colleagues and I had a great experience at this year’s GFSI Conference, held for the first time as a virtual event. We enjoyed creating avatars, staffing our virtual booth and interacting with other attendees on a whole new level. We gained insight into different approaches organisations adopted to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Getting a full snapshot of responses and actions throughout the supply chain was a shot in the virtual arm – reassurance that we all rallied and used innovation, technology and perseverance to drive food safety forward.

Common themes throughout the conference were auditor integrity, crisis management and utilising data and technology to drive food safety in supply chains. In line with GFSI’s Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative, auditor-focused presentations aligned with GFSI’s desire to harmonise and benchmark requirements for food safety auditor training and continuing professional development.

Several sessions addressed the importance of audit or supplier assessment data. Technology is certainly an excellent tool for collecting and monitoring data. But what does the data mean? Technology doesn’t solve problems on its own – it requires someone trained in food operations to extract the data and determine what it means. You can’t replace practical, time-tested experience. We need auditors’ expertise in analytical thinking to discover trends and make sure the site is actioning the collected data. Technology shows trends, but auditors analyse and evaluate how well a manufacturing site responded to those trends.

The session Auditing Tomorrow: How Technology Is Transforming the Food Safety Audit focused on how the auditor’s experience utilising technology is critical to ensure the accuracy and integrity of remote audit findings. It addressed that technology can transform audits, but not the need for auditors. People will always be critical for novel problem-solving and making sense of the data technology collects.

My own session, Measuring Auditor Performance to Meet Future Expectations, sparked some interesting questions, including whether we see audits evolving to become more technology-enabled. NSF has seen that after a year where in person audits weren’t always an option, they are now a priority for our customers. We believe that we’ll see a slight dip in technology-driven audits to accommodate “on-site” demand and then my prediction is that, the desire for remote audits will rebound and become a permanent part of the supply chain assessment program. As we’ve seen with the direction of GFSI benchmarked certification programs, most likely a blended audit combining both offsite and on-site activities will become the preferred option.

In addition to technical competency, auditor soft skills – how they interact with clients and deliver information – are critical to the future of auditing. The integrity of food supply chains relies on audits to drive improvement in food safety. Auditors have to deliver on the expectation of a fair and thorough audit, or audits have no real value. But how the findings from those audits are delivered is important; it’s equivalent to “bedside manner” in doctors. If an auditor conveys technical information without empathy, context or discussion, the manufacturing team may not be able to absorb the issues. Auditors with finely tuned soft skills can manage the interaction with the site and stay engaged, even if audit nonconformances indicate a poor audit outcome or failing score.

A related question we received focused on the extent to which soft skills are teachable. In our experience, skilled recruiters can get a feel for soft skills in the interview, but they can also be gained and enhanced through training and practice. As part of our auditor training, we provide situational role playing, working through scenarios and challenging auditors to use conflict resolution skills through de-escalation of difficult conversations around nonconformances.

Practicing this type of skill is important because auditors are under a lot of pressure from the moment the audit begins. We need to empower them with the skills to handle situational and time pressures, while capturing accurate technical information and resolving conflict in an efficient and meaningful way for both the auditor and the site. Indeed, auditors are earnest and hard-working. They come to the career because they have a genuine interest and desire to make the food supply chain safer. GFSI’s RTTT is working to design the parameters of professional recognition to support this.

Another follow-up question was how we can measure soft skills. Qualitative skills are harder to measure, but we can look at feedback from manufacturing sites through post-audit feedback questionnaires and specific soft skills assessment criteria in witness audit checklists, and track numbers and causes of audit outcome appeals. Our new auditors undergo shadow and witness audits before conducting audits on their own, and experienced auditors are witnessed every few years as part of our continual improvement efforts. These feedback mechanisms result in valuable, actionable observations that elicit a positive response and approach to corrective action from the auditor.

Providing training and calibration opportunities of value to auditors drives their commitment to growth and investment in their career. NSF’s training portal designates learning paths specific to an auditor’s qualified certification and second-party programs, and provides updates to regulatory or food sector
experience and qualification. Completion of training is tracked and up to date to enable monitoring and updating of calibration data. Utilising this system is key to our successful tracking of KPIs against training requirements.

In conclusion, what we learned from listening to and talking with others was that 2020 – as disruptive, stressful and challenging as it was – caused us to innovate and flex our resiliency muscles. Traveling in 2020, auditors were our frontline professionals, recommitting to their craft and doing what was needed for the supply chain, potentially at their own peril. We are grateful for their contributions and commitment.

While we hope for smoother sailing and a return to a new “normal” in the coming year, lessons learned through COVID-19 will help guide us for many years to come.

I look forward to seeing everyone—hopefully in person!—at the 2022 conference!

Missed our special session, Measuring Auditor Performance to Meet Future Expectations? Watch the recording.

Written and contributed by:
Kim Onett
Associate Director of Global Supplier Assurance
NSF International

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