Improve Lab Productivity, Further Career Development, and Provide Multi-Technique Expertise
When managers think about laboratory performance optimization, many typically think of obtaining a new machine or instrument. There are new technologies that can be purchased or new programs that can be implemented, but many managers often overlook the possibility of utilizing something they already have—human performance optimization in the form of cross training.
This isn’t aerobics mixed with weight lifting, but a method used in the industry to expand knowledge among employees, and it’s becoming more and more common as managers find the need for employees to be capable in a multitude of settings.
At Ashland Analytical Services & Technology (AS&T), the laboratory arm of Ashland Inc., cross training programs are part of the process used to keep the lab a top performer. AS&T is a comprehensive laboratory that provides analytical testing and problem-solving services for Ashland and also operates as a contract laboratory providing services for other companies.
Holly Sennhenn, senior research chemist, watches as Emily Stawicki, technician, prepares a sample for distillation to determine nitrogen content using the Kjeldahl method of nitrogen analysis.
“I was hired to work in one area of spectroscopy, but after a few months on the job additional support was needed in another spectroscopy area, so I was chosen to cross-train,” said Holly Sennhenn, a senior research chemist at Ashland. “Having capabilities in both areas turned out to be beneficial, because the techniques complemented each other. I could adjust my focus in either area depending on the demand, which helped alleviate bottlenecks in our workflow,” she said.
Ashland’s cross training program
Ashland’s analytical laboratory is divided into three specialty groups: Materials Characterization (MAT), Spectroscopy/Microscopy (SAM) and Separations/Environmental Analysis (SEA).
Initially, cross training was implemented at Ashland after ISO 9001 certification was obtained in 1996. Around that time, AS&T began tracking the workload in a more process-centered fashion. A newly implemented laboratory information management system was used to gather the information needed to make decisions about where more expertise should be distributed. The cross training came about naturally as the workload rose in some areas and decreased in others.
Much of the cross training ended up happening in the MAT group. Work done in that area of the lab tends to generate massive amounts of numerical data and results that come from routine analyses performed by technicians. Ashland managers realized they could improve productivity by cross training these technicians to perform different analytical tests. Having knowledge in a wide variety of techniques allows technicians to share the often heavy workload.
“One of the primary reasons for cross training is coverage,” said Benjamin Chew, laboratory manager at AS&T. “We want people to have the ability to take sick leave or go on vacation without worrying about their work piling up.” He also notes the importance of cross training in keeping the lab running. “If an emergency comes up requiring immediate answers, we need to be able to address that,” he said. “For a service group that supports multiple internal business groups and multiple contract projects, as ours does, this is very important. If we have a single person assigned to run an analysis and that person is out of the office for a length of time, multiple projects will stop. That simply cannot happen.”
Joe Curran, research chemist, at Ashland’s Dublin facility, trains Wanxing Nancy Ni, chemist, Ashland Shanghai Technical Center, in performing acid value titrations.
The SAM and SEA departments employ the highest concentration of scientists with Ph.D. and Master of Science degrees in the entire lab. Their work does not generate as much numerical data as tests performed in the MAT lab does, but rather provides interpretation of data produced by the wide array of spectroscopic and chromatographic techniques performed. Because of this, it is more difficult to cross-train employees in these areas of the lab; however, Ashland has been successful in using its cross training techniques among those with high-level skill sets.
The AS&T team uses a proficiency matrix to determine who to cross-train and in what areas. Everyone in the lab rates themselves on a skill-level scale of 0, 1, 3, 4, 6 or 8 for each technique. If a person indicates a zero, it means that the person has no knowledge or skill in the technique and no skill in running the instruments required for it. A skill level of 8 indicates that the person is considered an expert on that technique and can develop and implement new methods that address nonstandard requests.
The matrix is used to determine what areas could use more expertise, who would benefit from the training and who is knowledgeable enough to train someone new in a certain technique. Each trainee is assigned a mentor to help orient him or her to the technology and, when applicable, the new area of the lab. Thorough documentation of the trainee’s work is kept and reviewed by managers throughout the training period.
“So much of analytical knowledge is gained through experience,” said Sennhenn. “You could work in this profession for 20 years and still encounter new problems. Working closely with a mentor is the one of the best ways to learn, because throughout the course of the mentoring process you are able to draw on your mentor’s experience and also see how he or she approaches problem solving. You also gain confidence as your mentor validates your results.”
Benefits and challenges of cross training
Ashland has found that one of the most direct benefits of cross training is the amount of individual career development that takes place among staff members. Each person is considered an “expert” in at least one technique, but having a working knowledge of several other techniques enhances the problem-solving skills each person can bring to the team. Managers have found that those who have been cross-trained have a greater appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of each technique and can better focus on solving problems. Cross training also makes staff members more valuable to Ashland when opportunities arise to contribute AS&T expertise to outside clients.
James Listebarger, senior staff scientist, shows Kristen Harvey, technician, a spectrum of elements within a material, collected using Ashland’s Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectrometer system.
Though valuable, cross training is complex as well. “Oftentimes during the course of analytical testing, the results you get lead to more questions,” said Sennhenn. “Being cross-trained allows you to continue to investigate the problem beyond one technique. This is beneficial because performing an analysis from beginning to end helps you see the full picture and makes it easier to piece together the information from the multiple techniques. It also helps you approach problem solving differently because you have in-depth knowledge of the other testing that is available.”
As beneficial as cross training is, problems arise in finding the time to perform the training. Ideally, employees would be cross-trained before a critical need for their skills arises, but that requires the ability to anticipate what future demand will surface. Workloads in various areas of the lab are very dependent on how well the businesses within Ashland are performing, so lab managers continuously track trends with consistent data gathering and work to understand the effects that different business maneuvers are likely to have on their workloads. The future plans and eventual actions of employees are other factors that affect the lab’s workload.
“Potential retirements and a method for transferring knowledge are a major reason for cross training,” said Chew. “We once had four analysts retire at the same time—a cumulative loss of 148 years of experience. We had been planning for this in the years prior by hiring new employees and placing them in roles where they could learn as much as possible, utilizing cross training as a teaching tool.”
Lab managers also understand that training is only the first step to an employee’s success. “Training may involve something as simple as showing a technician the commands used to run a specific instrument,” said Chew. “However, it is the knowledge of chemistry specific to the company that needs to be taught. Certain job skills are transferable—good general lab techniques, attention to detail and clear technical writing—but knowledge of a material and how it will behave under a specific analysis can only be picked up when you actually run the sample yourself. The basic skills to run a sample can be taught in as little as a week; the skills to interpret those results can take years.