The U.S. Navy offers an interesting lesson to laboratories on how to get more work done with reduced staffing levels. During the Cold War guided missile cruisers were manned by 380 people. Today those same cruisers are manned by 310 people. Future cruisers will be manned by only 150 people. With smaller crews, each crew member is more important in executing the ships mission and has more responsibility that in the past.


Doing more with less is the challenge facing many lab managers, particularly those managing small labs for small companies. A recent survey indicated that small companies have been reducing hiring for several months. The latest monthly survey indicated that more small firms plan to reduce staffing levels than expanding them. So a major aspect of the challenge of doing more with less is to handle increased workloads with a static or reduced workforce. Ideally this is done without increasing the stress levels your staff members’ experience. Another aspect is handling increased workloads with reduced capital equipment budgets.


Staffing levels


Doing more with less is possible. Laboratories can learn from the U.S. Navy. In World War II destroyers were manned by 1,142 officers and sailors. During the Cold War approximately 25 years ago, guided missile cruisers as large as or larger than these destroyers and packing far more destructive force were manned by only 380 people. The reduction in crew size means that the annual operating cost of these cruisers is much less than that of World War II destroyers.


Today these same cruisers are manned by 310 people. Future cruisers with even greater capabilities will be manned by only 150 people.


The reduced crew sizes are made possible by extensive automation and computerization of many of the ships systems as well as the weapons themselves. Each crew member has greater responsibility and, when fully trained, operates more independently of officer supervision.


With smaller crews, each crew member is more important in executing the ship’s mission and has more responsibility than in the past. They also have a greater spectrum of jobs to do than previous sailors.


Applying lessons in the lab


So how does this translate to the lab?


Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) interfaced with more capable laboratory instrumentation means it takes less time to assemble and integrate data. Lab personnel can spend less time running analyses, assembling data and writing reports and more time in the high value activity of interpreting the results. They can issue reports more rapidly.


Electronic lab notebooks can also aid in organizing data and results and storing them in a more easily retrievable way.


Personnel management


Managers can best capitalize on this technology through improved personnel management and training practices. This includes hiring technicians with the training and education to quickly learn how to operate today’s more sophisticated equipment. In many cases technicians will be assembling and interpreting data and writing reports, activities once reserved for scientists.


Training programs will be needed to keep lab personnel skills up to date. Many in today’s lab work force are more interested in continuing education than their peers of a generation ago. Some are interesting in moving out of the laboratory into jobs in business management, sales, marketing and other facets of business operations. Others want to stay in the laboratory but may be interested in moving into various management positions.


Many of today’s lab staff members need skills such as project management not traditionally thought of as laboratory skills. Project management, time management and interpersonal skills enable lab staff members to work more efficiently.


They have to be able to do this on their own. The command and control system that worked well in the past is less effective when the number of managers is limited and managers are often expected to be hands-on team leaders who don’t spend all their time supervising others.


Lab staff members are also fulfilling other responsibilities not traditionally thought of as lab skills. For instance, technicians at many labs keep customers informed of progress in completing projects, make both informal and formal oral reports to customers and prepare written reports.