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Leading Your Staff Through Change

Change is inevitable for laboratories in order to stay abreast of the latest technology and adapt to new customer needs

by Donna Kridelbaugh
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There is nothing like the word “change” to strike fear into the hearts of employees and set the whole lab on edge. People may fear being replaced by new technology or that changes will impact their personal lives. But change is inevitable for laboratories in order to stay abreast of the latest technology and adapt to new customer needs, and employees must learn to be flexible and adjust to this ever-changing lab environment.

While an entire discipline is devoted to the science of change management, successful implementation of change boils down to one key element—leading people through the change process. Lab managers can accomplish this by being proactive and taking steps to keep the lines of communication open, allowing employees to take ownership of the change process, and creating a culture of change so that employees are always prepared for future changes.

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Change is necessary for labs to grow and thrive

Scott Hanton, general manager of Intertek Allentown, points out that there are two types of changes necessary for labs to thrive: strategic and tactical. On the strategic side, it just makes good business sense to align services to a changing customer demand and to stay competitive in new and emerging markets. These changes may include adding or dropping a service to meet client needs.

From a tactical standpoint, science and technology are constantly evolving and advancing, from more sophisticated laboratory automation to new testing kits to make processes more efficient and precise. This type of change requires labs to regularly invest in the latest equipment and optimize internal processes.

According to David Novis, president and CEO of Novis Consulting LLC and a clinical pathologist, another area that necessitates change is striving for improved quality to reduce lab errors in both the pre-analytical (i.e., sample preparation) and post-analytical (i.e., interpretation and delivery of results) phases of lab operations. A majority of medical errors, for example, are directly tied to clinical lab errors.

However, not all change may be necessary or even beneficial for the lab. For example, Hanton advises lab managers not to change “just for the sake of change.” It’s important to provide consistency in day-to-day operations. As the old saying goes, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Further, Hanton explains, “As leaders, we really need to put ourselves in the shoes of our staff to look at the proposed changes and be able to communicate the benefit to that individual.” If there are no benefits that can be clearly communicated to the individual, then maybe the change doesn’t need to be made.

How to alleviate employees’ fears about change

People tend to fear the unknown and worry that change will disrupt their work-life balance or create more workload. As Novis explains, “What I think they really object to, but do not articulate, is a perceived loss of control they believe will result from change. Consequently, they fail to consider what might be improved outcomes, focusing only on real or imagined obstacles in its path.”

Likewise, people tend to focus on the perceived pain that a change will cause and not on what they may gain from it. According to Hanton, “People are much more concerned with losing something than with gaining something. We have to emphasize what is gained, while minimizing any actual losses.”

So how can lab managers help employees prepare for and focus on the benefits of change? Maintaining open communications with employees using diverse communication channels is critical. Changes should be communicated as far in advance as possible, with a focus on being transparent and providing a clear strategy with timelines and desired outcomes.

As Hanton describes, the communication methods will depend on the culture of the organization: “The leader has to understand their organization and use parallel communications. The leader ought to know what those paths are and what works and doesn’t work. And the same things won’t work in every organization.”

One-on-one communication is especially important to alleviating individual fears, addressing misperceptions, and showing employees how they will directly benefit from the change. Novis also advises to take into account all the hidden agendas that staff have for their own personal and professional lives. By listening to these concerns, the manager can structure the change to respect these individual needs.

Another fear people may have is that they will be replaced by new technology, but as Don Newton, a clinical laboratory consultant and a former VP of clinical operations and administrative lab director, emphasizes, “Even with automation, there’s just too strong a need for the manual components on the front end. There’s always a need for analytical minds.”

Skilled technicians are required to maintain equipment, troubleshoot protocols, and interpret data; thus, a machine can never entirely do away with the need for experienced lab staff. Additionally, Newton explains that lab managers and directors can take steps to avoid staff reductions: “I look for ways not to reduce staff. So how do you do that? You bring in additional testing or tasks that are some people’s job security (e.g., point of care, outreach) to keep everyone working and earning a living.”

Creating a shared vision and group ownership of change

In addition to communicating change, it is essential to directly engage staff in the change process to create group ownership. This can be as simple as asking staff for technical input on a proposed change. As Newton explains, “You’re not the one running that particular piece of machinery or who has to live with those changes, so I always want the people who it dramatically effects to give their input, because they’re the ones who are going to have to live with it.”

Lab managers also need to shy away from micromanaging the change process and let the experts in the lab decide on the tactics to get there. As Novis explains, “What leaders do is that they create the vision and set the final metric and end point.” He continues, “I believe that managers must concern themselves primarily with the desired outcome, be comfortable with and allow their workforce to challenge them, and let those responsible for implementing the change craft their own tactics.”

However, Hanton provides the disclaimer that accountability for change can never be delegated to staff. This accountability involves regular communications back to the lab manager and monitoring metrics related to the desired outcome to understand if the change is resulting in the intended impact.

Hanton also advises that lab managers work toward aligning the collective benefits of the change for the organization with employees’ needs. This includes providing choices and a clear picture of the risk to individuals if the change does not go forward. For example, if staff are asking for more help or a new piece of equipment, then show them how the proposed change will enable the organization to better perform and secure more resources.

Another tip for lab managers is to focus energy on getting group buy-in from the staff members who are receptive to change. Hanton provides this insight: “Focus on the people on the fence. If you think about three groups of people—supporters, on the fence, and detractors—you’ve already got support from the supporters. You’ll probably never really convince the detractors. You can enable the change by winning the support of those still on the fence.” Then these supporters can serve as role models to demonstrate how the change can be effectively implemented.

Ensuring that change is sustainable in the future

In planning for change, lab managers must take into consideration how to sustain the change for the long term and weigh any unintended consequences. While having a plan for making a change is essential, it’s equally important to have backup plans to prepare for unexpected issues resulting from the change. As Newton explains, “If you implement a change, it may have a small effect on the front end but a huge ripple effect in another, or within your department on the back end that you didn’t take into consideration.”

It is also important to create a culture of change to prepare staff for unknown changes in the future. This aspect requires an investment in people within the organization. For example, lab managers should encourage staff to pursue advanced training and evaluate future skill sets that may be needed by the organization.

Additionally, Hanton emphasizes that leadership should cultivate key attributes in its staff members, including flexibility and resiliency, that will ensure staff are adaptable to change. And another outcome from the change process itself is identifying future leaders within an organization who can advocate for and sustain the change moving forward.

Novis also emphasizes that a number of lean production methodologies, commonly used in the manufacturing industry, can be applied to the lab environment to create lasting changes that will improve both quality and performance. These changes include standardization of processes (e.g., terminology, processes) and mistake-proofing measures (e.g., barcoding samples) to prevent lab errors from ever occurring in the first place, thus minimizing the need for additional changes.

Recommended reading

1. David Novis Consulting. 

2. Novis, D (2008) Reducing Errors in the Clinical Laboratory: A Lean Production System Approach. Laboratory Medicine.

3. Newton, D (2005) Step Back, Take a Bench. Advance Healthcare Network.

4. Newton, D (2005) Connecting before Connectivity. Advance Healthcare Network.

5. Newton, D (2006) The Scheduling Game. Advance Healthcare Network. 

6. Hanton, S. and McEvoy T (2016) Skill Training. Lab Manager.