Internalizing and Externalizing Procedures

Procedures don’t exist unless you make them exist.

That is, procedures don’t functionally exist unless and until you make them exist.  All labs have large binders full of long, complicated policies and forms, and no one would notice for a year if they were all pulped.

A procedure only become real if it is active.  If it is having an actual effect on the lab and on human safety.  This is more or less your job, to make the procedures real.  There are two ways of going about this, internalizing and externalizing them.

A procedure is externalized when it’s been turned into set of steps that you can following. The is the “P” in the Demming cycle:


If you turn your departmental procedures on safety into a checklist, you are successfully externalizing it.  If you rework a Materials & Methods section into a protocol to be followed, you are externalizing it.  Externalized systems are all over the place; google will return you as many safety checklists as you like.  The British Army’s “seven questions” manual is another good example of an externalized system.

You are internalizing something when it becomes second nature.  A teacher of mine used to tell me that I needed to know the stuff well enough that he could wake me at three in the morning and I would be able to answer all his questions.  That’s a pretty good standard.

Internalizing is harder than externalizing, but you already know this.  Holding a list of instructions in your head is harder than following ones written down.  To be effective, internalized procedures need to be short and simple.

The four-and-one pillars are a good example.  The diver’s acronym BAR (Buoyancy, Air, Releases) is another good example.  When it comes to checking whether a chemical is particularly dangerous, I use APS – is there Ammonia?  Is there Potassium?  Is there Sodium?

The problem, of course, is that internalized procedures can never be enough.  The business of laboratory safety is just too complicated to be held all in a single mind at a single time – and even if it were theoretically possible for some mnemonic genius to do so, you could never develop that skill in time for it to be useful.

The trick is to use internalized procures to set off externalized procedures.  Let’s say you’ve taken the time to develop three checklists, one for lab cleanliness, one for proper storage and one for supplies.  These are your externalized procedures.  Your internalized procedure is simply to run through all three checklists at 3:15 on Fridays (or whenever).  That is as simple a system as can be.

Oddly enough, running through three checklists at one time is not much more difficult than running through one – and both are much easier than running through three different checklists and three different times.  The reason is that human action draws on two different “budgets” – willpower and energy.

Willpower is what you use to change what you’re doing.  Energy is what you use to keep doing what your doing.  Of the two, willpower is infinitely rarer and more precious.  The expenditure required to shift to “run through these checklists” is not that much different than having that required to “run through this checklist”.

This is why combining internalized and externalized procedures is essential.  If you were to try to internalize every single item of a checklist, you would be spending willpower on each and every one.  Even if possible, it would be exhausting.  So, developing a checklist and just focusing on internalizing the habit of using it, will yield you far better returns on your time and effort.

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