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Can Chipotle Ever Win Back Customer Trust? The once thriving restaurant chain's embrace of food safety as a corporate value is the best route to regaining consumer confidence.

By Brian Fielkow

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After a 2015 e-Coli and norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 50 customers across 11 states, Chipotle second quarter profits were down 81 percent this year. To restore confidence and stem their loss of customers, the company has given away coupons for millions of free entrees, introduced chorizo as a topping, started a summer loyalty program and offered free drinks to students.

Chipotle recently took out prominent ads in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and posted a video on its Twitter page featuring co-CEO Steve Ellis saying, "In 2015, we failed to live up to our own food safety standards, and in so doing, we let our customers down. At that time, I made a promise to all of our customers that we would elevate our food safety program." The video goes on to outline the new safety standards and procedures being implemented to protect customers in the future. But is this promise going to be enough earn back customers' trust?

Related: Chipotle Cooks Up New, Stricter Food Safety Rules Amid E. Coli Fiasco

Publicly acknowledging that the company made a mistake, taking responsibility and outlining the plan to protect patrons in the future is a good first step. Making customers aware of new rules and procedures being implemented to keep them safe is another. But there's one more important factor that will not only reduce the risk of another lapse in cleanliness, but show customers that the company is taking this matter seriously. Chipotle needs to embrace what it means to truly have a culture of safety, which is no easy fix. A safety culture is based on people, process, behavior and attitude. Here's what that entails.

1. Make it personal.

After a major safety failure, ensure every employee is emotionally invested in the victims, their families and how they were impacted. Take safety from the abstract and attach real humans to the equation. Making it real by putting the human with the statistic is a very effective way to overcome safety malaise. Produce a video with statements from the victims or their families describing the personal impact of the safety failure. That video should be seen be every employee on his/her first day of work. In addition to the emotional pull, you also need to give people a stake in safety success.Tie bonus, salary, and promotions to safety performance. People who cannot lead their teams and perform their jobs safely and who do not buy into the vision have to go.

2. Kill the sacred cows.

All company employees must understand that the organization is embarking on a new journey -- one in which the old "sacred cows" from the past could not go. One of the sacred cows may be that safety belongs to the safety manager alone. Wrong. In an operating company, safety belongs to every employee, but especially to operating management. Another sacred cow is the victim mentality whereby a company gives themselves a pass on being accountable by thinking, "Oh well, we work in a dangerous environment. Accidents will happen."

Related: Chipotle's Rewards Program Is so Flawed They Don't Know Who Is Eating Their Free Burritos

3. Identify the organizational role.

Safe outcomes are the product of both individual and organizational accountability. Introduce the concept of organizational causes for safety failures. That means the organization has a role, usually a huge role, regarding fault when something goes wrong. For example, employees developing work-arounds instead of following procedures; the organization not learning from prior events and precursors; senior management giving only lip service to safety; management not knowing what is driving safety performance; and the organization using incorrect metrics to gauge safety.

4. Recognize and incorporate these universal truths.

Zero accidents is the only acceptable goal. For most aspects of business, 99.9 percent is a pretty compelling standard. Not safety. Zero safety failures is the only goal that is satisfactory.

Safety is much more than a group of numbers on a page. Safety is about you. It is families and friends. Managers have to engage. This can't be delegated. Safety leadership is a core responsibility of management.

Measurement of performance is critical. The accident rate is the outcome of behaviors, so measure proactive activities like safety meetings, supervisory and peer observations, individual one-on-one discussions and cultural surveys. The majority of casualties are caused by at-risk behavior, not a pure failure in facilities or equipment. Rather than examining the conditions of the accident, it is more useful to consider the behavior associated with it.

5. Establish pride in the craft.

For some of the employees, youthful dreams and once-big plans had fizzled. Life for some had evolved into a colorless routine of low expectations. People need to feel like their daily work is making a contribution to society, like what they're doing is meaningful. Talk to your frontline people about the significance of their work. Ensure that uniforms for the front line have explicit safety branding and logos.

Related: Chipotle Faces Food Poisoning Lawsuits in California and Minnesota

6. Debunk the safety-or-productivity dichotomy.

"Safety or productivity -- which one do you want?" I have heard this nonsense my entire career: "You can't be safe and be productive at the same time, so what do you want: to get the job done, or for us to be safe?" This is a fallacy. If you want to have a messed-up operation, just experience the pain trying to win back the trust of your customers. See what being unsafe does to your operation, your budget, your customer service, your reputation in the community and your total costs. Best-in-class leaders and best-in-class companies know that safety is the cornerstone of great operations. If the production line has to slow down a bit to be safe, that is fine. In fact, present it as a virtue -- we'd rather take our time to get it right.

Rules, laws and regulations do not prevent accidents. It takes a culture where every individual worker buys into safety. Safety is about people taking responsibility for their behavior and that of their peers, so focus on the basics. Great safety is about paying attention to detail and solidly executing the basics.

Brian Fielkow

Business Leader, Author, Keynote Speaker

Corporate culture and management advisor Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies. With a doctorate in law from Northwestern University School of Law, he serves as owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a logistics company in Houston that specializes in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight. 

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