Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Running Your Lab Like A Business

Research skills are only part–albeit a critical part–of what lab managers need to succeed. Fortunately, scientists are learners and as such can put this skill to work in developing management techniques and tools to run their labs as businesses.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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A 2007 AAAS survey indicated that science postdocs and graduate students, the lab managers of tomorrow, get very little formal training in the management of people and lab budgets. In his blog,1 James Austin, editor of the AAAS website, discussed the poll results. More than 75% of the respondents were post-docs and graduate students so the poll results are largely a snapshot of what is happening now. The blog title, “Lab Management: As Bad as We Suspected” gives more than a hint of his conclusions. He commented, “People still aren't receiving formal lab management training in significant numbers. Training, such as it is, remains ad hoc.” Almost 87% of the respondents reported that they received no formal training in managing people although nearly half reported receiving informal training.

Managing and Motivating Knowledge Workers

So how can managers overcome this lack of formal and informal training in managing staff? Understanding what motivates your employees is critical to effective leadership. “The secret to motivating every worker lies in tailoring your approach,” says Francie Dalton, founder and president of Dalton Alliances, Inc. (a business consulting firm in Columbia, Md). She notes that a "one-size-fits-all" cookie-cutter approach to motivating staff members is ineffective. Managers need to customize their methods for each person they manage.
One way to do this is to understand the primary personal values motivating each of your staff members. According to the American Chemical Society Workshop “Planning Your Job Search,” the primary personal values that motivate knowledge workers are:
  1. Advancement (promotion and recognition for achievement)
  2. Autonomy (being largely self-directed in one’s work)
  3. Challenge (working on difficult problems)
  4. Job security
  5. Work–personal life balance
  6. Altruism (contributing to the welfare of others) 
For example, a 9/80 work schedule so people work nine hours on Monday through Thursday and eight hours on Fridays with alternate Fridays off can accommodate employees with a strong interest in balancing their personal and professional lives. This work schedule can also accommodate some lab personnel with a strong interest in autonomy who want to write technical papers, prepare conference presentations, or work in the lab on some of their own ideas without adversely affecting their job performance.
Each individual’s primary motivator can change with personal life changes. For example, the importance of job security and work–personal life balance can greatly increase when a scientist or technician marries or has his or her first child.
Effective leaders need to understand their employees well enough to know which of the six factors are their primary motivators and then find ways to satisfy these motivations in the workplace. This may mean placing the individuals in different job assignment or finding ways to introduce job components satisfying their primary motivators into their current job assignment.
Dalton notes that this sort of approach works best with your direct reports since one knows them best. How do you learn which are the primary motivators for each staff member? This requires taking an interest in each staff member as a person and engaging in frequent conversations that include more general or more personal topics than just how well a specific project is going. Periodic performance discussions provide an opportunity for managers to ask direct questions in order to learn what motivates staff members — for example, asking them what one factor about their job they would like to change, or what opportunities staff members would like to have in their current or next assignment. This may give you opportunities to restructure a person’s job assignment to make it more satisfying to that individual. Practicing this consistently with one’s staff members can greatly improve the morale of your work group. A high-morale work group is a more productive work group.
Managers should also use discussions with staff members and performance reviews to set job expectations and project goals for each individual and project team. Even challenging goals provide a sense of security since staff members know what is expected of them. The more a manager can find overlap or synergies between an employee’s job goals and his or her personal goals, the happier and more motivated the employee will be. In addition, a clear explanation of the connections between each individual’s work goals, goals for the work group as a whole, and the overall organization goals can improve staff morale.
An understanding of each employee’s capabilities helps to structure a job that best takes advantage of these capabilities. Underutilizing an employee’s skills can lead to job dissatisfaction and low morale that may prompt the employee to find another job. Managers need to remember that each employee’s skill set will change with time as a result of job experience, courses taken, and other learning experiences.
Dalton notes that one cause of low morale is the “one bad apple” syndrome — a cynical employee whose dissatisfaction colors the attitudes of co-workers. Dr. John Wanous, professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University, supervised a three-year study indicating that the most important cause of employee cynicism was the perceived effectiveness of supervisors. Wanous said that most managers believed "a rotten core of employees with bad attitudes caused employee cynicism. But that's not what we found. It wasn't bad apples that caused problems at the company — the problem was that management spoiled the fruit." Hourly employees were more likely to be cynical than were salaried employees. However, cynicism was more harmful to the job satisfaction and commitment of salaried employees. (At most companies, laboratory technicians are hourly employees while scientists are salaried.)
Managers can prevent employee cynicism by establishing trust — being honest in their dealings with employees, for example, admitting when they don’t know the answers to difficult questions, such as “Will there be a layoff?” In the case of bad apples, managers should not let the problem fester so that morale in their work group deteriorates. Instead, the bad apple should be transferred to a more congenial position (without being rewarded them for their dissatisfaction) or have their employment terminated. Co-workers recognize bad apples for what they are and are often not upset when such people lose their jobs.
Managing a Budget
Another key area for managers is budgeting — both setting budgets and monitoring spending to ensure that budget limits are observed while the sums required to achieve laboratory goals are spent. Whether you manage a large lab, a small lab, or a department, you need to have a thorough understanding of your organization’s budgeting procedures and timetable. However, according to the 2007 AAAS survey, nearly 92% of faculty members, postdocs, and graduate students received no formal training in money management; nearly 74% hadn’t even received informal training.
The basics of tracking expenditures are fairly straightforward. For example, after the first three months of your fiscal year, your expenditures should equal about 25% of your budget. The rate of some spending may not be linear. For example, adjustments have to be made for such factors as the greater use of heating in the winter months. Due to the timing of the academic year, June is often the month in which the largest number of new employees join lab staffs. These nonlinear factors need to be taken into account.
The exception to this is the purchase of new instruments and major equipment. Some equipment must be purchased to replace instruments that become nonfunctional. Savvy managers should be aware of instruments and equipment that are reaching the end of their useful lives and include money in the budget for replacements even if purchase is delayed as long the old units operate properly. Otherwise, the purchase of equipment early in the fiscal year is usually the best approach to avoid price increases. Often purchasing at the end of a calendar year quarter can result in better deals, as salespeople are more willing to reduce prices or add accessories to their sales quotas.
Managers frequently get coaching and advice from their supervisors and predecessors on budgeting procedures and concerns. First-line managers in particular, because of their limited management experience, need to consult with their supervisors early in the budgeting process. A Review of budget requirements with staff members can result in budget requests more suited to meet lab goals. Such discussions also help establish an atmosphere of trust between managers and staff members.
Managing Projects
R&D is “the number one lever” to increase productivity and growth for many firms, according to Scott J. Edgett, CEO of Product Development Institute (Ancaster, Ontario). So the management of science and technology is critical to company profitability and growth. This management has two aspects. The first is deciding what R&D and technical service work needs to be done. The second is managing the projects that are actually worked on.
According to Edgett, firms must develop a formal and systematic product development portfolio management process to:
·        Align projects with business strategy.
·        Contain high-value-to-the-business projects.
·        Ensure a balance of project types – longer-range, innovative projects; late-stage commercialization projects; and customer service projects.
·        Do a good job of prioritizing projects.
·        Limit the number of projects to avoid product development pipeline gridlock and accelerate new products to market.
·        Achieve a good balance between the number of projects and available resources.
Every staff member plays an important role by contributing project ideas following the submission procedures used by the company or department. Lab managers also need to be alert to new science and business developments that could impact the choice of projects to be pursued.
Managers play a major role in prioritizing project proposals and thus determining which are actually pursued. This choice is based on both the project urgency and project impact on the company’s business. Urgency and impact are not necessarily consistent with one another. For example, a small customer may have a problem that needs to be solved immediately if the lab manager’s firm is to retain its business. Even if the amount of business is relatively small, it may be appropriate to solve this problem before working on another problem that will have a greater overall impact on the firm’s business.
Of course, lab managers should not fall into the trap of constantly “fighting fires” at the expense of longer-range research that will have a greater financial impact. This relates back to the budget setting process and ensuring that the work group has the resources to fight these fires without sacrificing the achievement of longer-range, higher-impact goals.
How do managers decide which projects are the most important to pursue? Consultant Bradford Goldense, president of the Goldense Group, Inc. (Cambridge, Mass.), suggested that one way to measure overall R&D program effectiveness is the following equation:
ROII =  ______(Cumulative N-year Proft from New Products)_________
 (Cumulative N-year Expenditure on New Product Development)
wherein:            ROII = return on innovation investment
                        N = a given number of years after the investment is made
The numerator is sometimes referred to as “Profit Before Tax.” The above equation has no time value term. By using the net present value (NPV) for both the numerator and denominator, one can take time factors into account. NPV can be affected by inflation and other changes in the cost of raw materials, salaries, and sale price of the new product. NPV allows comparison of projects with different time frames and different investment requirements.
Edgett offered another key metric, the new product development (NPD) success rate. This is defined as the fraction of NPD projects entering the commercial development stage that become commercial successes, meeting or exceeding financial objectives. The average success rate for U.S. industry is 60.2%.
For effective management of individual projects, the lab manager and project team leader need to:
  • Identify project objectives and keep them in mind while executing the project
  • Identify sponsors and stakeholders
  • Recruit top management support
  • Develop a careful plan
  • Assemble the project team and needed resources
  • Establish clear evaluation criteria
  • Implement the plan
  • Communicate effectively with team members, sponsors, and stakeholders
  • Track progress, set project milestones, and meet completion dates
  • Know when to ask for help
Maintaining Good Lab Practices
All this must be done while maintaining Good Laboratory Practice. GLP is the term used to refer to the use of a set of detailed standards mandating specific operating procedures in basic and applied research, data acquisition, and reporting. The context in which most people refer to GLP is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules set out in Section 21CFR58 of the Code of Federal Regulations for preclinical trials on animals prior to clinical research in humans.
However, in a broader sense, GLP is the use of standardized testing and reporting procedures so that results obtained in one laboratory at different times may be compared to those obtained in other laboratories. Many technical organizations have established standardized testing and reporting methods for various areas of R&D. The best known is ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing Materials. The Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry, National Association of Corrosion Engineers, Society of Petroleum Engineers, and other organizations also have established standardized testing methods.
While it is the responsibility of individual staff members to use standardized testing methods when appropriate, it is the responsibility of the laboratory manager to ensure that instructions on performing the testing methods are readily available and laboratory personnel are trained in the performance of standard test methods used in the course of their work. Lab managers are also responsible for ensuring that the testing equipment and reagents specified in the standardized test methods are available.
Safety is also an essential part of GLP. It is good practice to require laboratory personnel to read the MSDS of each chemical they use in the course of their work. Lab managers should require periodic or unscheduled lab inspections to check that all equipment is in good operating order and equipped with safety devices, such as temperature override switches. The lab personnel using this equipment should be trained in its operation.
Industrial and government labs generally have good safety records based on personnel training, safety inspections, and maintenance of equipment. However, the frequency of academic research laboratory accidents is more than ten times that in industrial labs according to James Kaufman, president and CEO of the Laboratory Safety Institute, a provider of safety training and other services to academia and industry. About 90% of lab accidents are the result of operator error, according to Michele Johnson of the University of Utah Environmental Health and Safety Department. Operator error the result of poor safety training, fatigue, inattention, or haste. Other common causes of lab accidents are improper use of equipment, use of the wrong equipment for the job; and poor equipment maintenance.
Managing Science and Business
What makes a lab different from any other business? In many ways, such as managing employees, attending to money matters, and maintaining a quality program, there are few if any differences — which is why lab managers need to incorporate business practices and philosophies into their daily lab operations. Whether through formal training in a management program (there are some specifically geared to laboratory management), working with a mentor, or pursuing self-study or informal training, the application of sound business practices can only improve how you run your lab.