Foodservice Operation of the Month

MD Anderson Cancer Center makes staff well-being a top priority

Healthy team dynamics fuel success for the hospital’s foodservice department.
dessert cups
Fruit and herbs bring pops of color to team-crafted treats. | Photos courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

For most FSDs, holding a title like Executive Director of Food and Nutrition Services is simply a matter of course. For Leisa Bryant at MD Anderson Cancer Center, it’s the culmination of a journey bringing two fractured teams back together.

The Houston-based cancer center, which was recently named No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report, had previously run foodservice via two departments: the self-operated Clinical Nutrition Services supporting patients and the contractor-managed retail Dining Services.

The two teams shared some space, as well as a combined annual budget. But everything else was cleaved: One crew wore hairnets, while the other wore caps. This team filed logs this way, and the other did it that way. The two teams even placed separate orders from the same supplier, which would arrive on the truck on two different delivery days during the week. 

“It was like living in a duplex,” says Dining Services Director Chris Standley. “You’re literally under the same roof, sharing some of the same space, yet you’re separate.”

The teams had, in fact, been combined several years ago but later were separated. Bryant was charged with making everyone a cohesive unit once again in 2020.

“When I started with MD Anderson, one of the managers said to me, ‘So, they hired you to put the divorced folks back together, huh?’” Bryant says. “I thought: Oh, boy. Here we go.”

How to begin? Bryant embarked on a listening tour of sorts, spending several months working closely with what was then 400-plus team members at all levels.

“I walked the walk; I was in the trenches on both sides, not only hearing both sides of the history but also feeling the experience,” she says. “I got a great view of both sides of the coin, which gave me a sense of how and why we weren’t quite meeting each other.”

She also asked a lot of questions, including one she posed to everyone: What is your goal? The answer was near-universal. Everyone wanted to support and care for MD Anderson’s cancer patients as much as possible.

There it was: Bryant had her common ground, her opportunity to rally the team around what was ultimately an existing shared aim. To operationalize it, she assembled frontline staff and managers for a strategic meeting.

“I put the mission statement of dining services and the mission statement of nutrition services on the same slide, showing them they all really wanted the same thing,” she said. “Then I asked: How do we get to one #foodandnutritiondepartment?”

They started with the low-hanging fruit of duplicative processes, determining that one sanitation team and one purchasing team could support the newly combined Food and Nutrition Services function. They asked Human Resources to assign them one recruiter, rather than two separate interview processes that sometimes pitted the teams against one another for a hire.

saladsFresh salads on display at MD Anderson. 

Other steps took more time. The team streamlined support staff so a single administrative assistant, program manager and program manager now worked with the combined function, rather than one of each for both halves. One of the biggest changes, however, was truly shared space.

“Before [we were combined], the room service kitchen was badge access only,” says Standley. “I was the Executive Chef at the time, and I was the only one from another team who could go in—but my sous chefs couldn’t go over and say, ‘Hey, can I grab a pot? Do you have extra rice?’”

“It was completely segregated,” he adds. “Now, we can all go to all of the areas, talk to the chef, hang out and share stories and advice with each other. Everybody knows each other a lot better—not just at work, but on a personal level. It makes a huge difference.”

That difference soon became clear not only on that human level, but in the FNS team’s data. Turnover in the department dropped from more than 30% to below 15% year over year. Employee opinion surveys showed double-digit percentage gains in areas including staff engagement, manager effectiveness, safety and ethics. More than 50 employees have been promoted.

“We make sure one another’s needs are met, and then we’re all better able to take care of patients and their families,” Standley says.

For other operators looking to bring their teams closer together—whether the divide is literal, as it was at MD Anderson, or more figurative like new hires and the old guard—Bryant offers a few recommendations. Listen as much as possible and empathize with the challenges, unite the team around their shared mission, and be clear about whom you’re there to serve and the direction you’re taking to do so.

“If before, we were people just living in the same duplex,” Standley says, “I can’t even say now that we're neighbors. We're family.”

Get to know MD Anderson’s Leisa Bryant

See what’s in store for Bryant’s operation, which was named FSD’s October Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q:  What is it that makes your operation excel?

Trust. Our team trusts each other, which means we can rely on each other.

That manifests in how much our team is willing to share their knowledge generously. How they’re willing to openly discuss their challenges within their own operational area, knowing that guidance will follow. It manifests in ethics and integrity, because everyone knows that our managers are walking the walk—any concerns will be looked at, investigated and they will always get a response.

That’s our department’s superpower: trust.

Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?

We are going to squeeze everything that we can out of this lovely, beautiful, thriving environment that we're in. We have created a rich culture and the momentum is there, so we’re going to continue to build on that; I do not take it for granted at any point.

Leisa Bryant
Leisa Bryant

Hardwired into our strategic plans and initiatives for growth is staff well-being. One of the things that came out of this work of restructuring is everything that the staff has experienced, especially during COVID. It pushed people to the point of burnout. We’ve accomplished a lot, so we need to take the time to recognize that and release the guilt of thinking that we have to do everything immediately.

Our team won $1,000 from our institution, which we used to create a wellness room for our staff. They’re not just a pot washer or a chef; they’re Tom, or Mike or Leisa. … And that's how we want our staff to continue to thrive is really creating, [continuing] to create that space of well-being, not just wellness, but well-being. Treating the whole person, respecting the whole person, understanding the whole person, and they're not just an employee.

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