To be truly effective leaders, lab managers may need to step back into the role for which they were initially trained.
Do you think you have a well-run laboratory? Most of us do. We have lots of books filled with policies, procedures, quality indicators, quality controls and all sorts of measured data. We benchmark, network, home grow and affiliate; we have in-services and inspections of all types; we have continuing education, seminars, professional gatherings and meetings for all sorts of lab-related issues. But are we getting away from the things that are most important? Do we pay enough attention to the day-to-day routine? Do we talk about it? Or more importantly, do we analyze it and ensure that it is working?
As laboratory directors, we must make sure we spend enough quality time with the people who make our laboratories tick-the lab clerks, phlebotomists, medical assistants, send-out techs, MLTs and MTs that make our labs run like clockwork. These are the people that we would be totally lost without. As we all know, if it were not for these hard-working, dedicated professionals, our labs would me a mess.
But are those individuals working harder and not smarter? And how do we find that out? I am amazed at the number and types of barriers that we work around on a daily basis. These barriers become such a part of our daily life routines that we typically stop noticing them.
I had a unit clerk who every time the phone rang had to stop what she was working on, get up and walk across the department to answer it because the phone was located across the room from her desk. One day I asked, “Why don’t we move the phone closer to your work area and have a longer cord put on the receiver?” She said that she had asked for that very same change two managers ago and was told that it would be too expensive to move it to her suggested location. I think the change cost us just over $100 dollars. But the labor savings and ripple effects were enormous. How did I find out about this barrier? I happened to be working the bench that day and observed her work habits every time the phone rang. Our phone rings many times each hour. It was amazing that she got any work done at all.
I had to set aside my lab manager/director duties (pushing papers) and take a bench. I had to step back into the role for which I was initially trained. It was here, at this finite level, that I noticed I could make a change to our laboratory that had a real and instant impact on the quality of our work; a change that improved our working conditions and indirectly saved us money.
Unearthing Ways to Improve
This got me thinking about ways to improve our organizations. As a director, instead of your scheduled meeting with your department supervisors, skip a level or two and meet with just your phlebotomists or lab clerks without their supervisor in the room. Sure you may ruffle a few middle management feathers and egos, but that shouldn’t matter much if the suggestions you glean from these meetings improve your organization.
Keep these meeting short and informal. Bring snacks and encourage your invited staff to be open and honest about the barriers they face every day as they try to do their part of patient care. Ask them what you can do to help them do their jobs more effectively; what changes they would make if they were the managers of their area or department. Assure them that there are no right or wrong answers in this meeting and that there will not be any punitive damage for speaking over their supervisor’s head. You might be surprised at the suggestions for improvement that you get. Do this with your chemistry, hematology and evening staff as well.
Remember that each department and each shift has its own operating flow. The things that work for the chemistry day shift may not work for the chemistry evening shift. The important thing is that these chat sessions are informal, anonymous, and free of all management except you, the director or manager of the laboratory. The idea here is to strip away all the layers and step back into the inner workings of your laboratory.
For the most part, we all started in this field as bench techs. Most of us, as directors, went back to graduate school and moved up the laboratory ladder. I did this to “make a bigger impact on the operations of whatever laboratory I was directing.” As the director of a small laboratory, I can tell you that I get the biggest impact, or biggest bang for my buck, because from time to time, I take a bench. It is a great way to reconnect with our ever-changing laboratory.
The dynamics of daily operations change all the time. The best way to ensure that we are working at optimal efficiency-working smarter, not harder-is to dig deep into the daily flow of our labs. I am not saying that we should micro manage every aspect of our laboratories. But if you really want to be an effective manager or director and show your staff that you have their best interest at heart, step back from time to time and take a bench. You may be amazed at the things you are able to find.and fix.
Don Newton is laboratory director, HealthSouth, Braintree, MA.