In lab management, systems beat goals

The Lab Manager’s System

One of the biggest ideas I have ever come across is the Systems vs. Goals distinction, as explained by this man:

The systems man
Scott Adams

The short version:

  • goal is any milestone that you work towards, and then can tick off as completed
  • system is a set of things you can practice in regular intervals.

For example, reaching your ideal BMI is a goal.  Daily intermittent fasting and weight-lifting is a system.  Saving up for a holiday is a goal.  Putting away 20% of your monthly salary is a system.  Greasing for an award for your lab is a goal.  Checking the chemical inventory every week is a system.

Systems are better than goals for a number of reasons.

1.  Systems are immediately rewarding.  The problem in chasing a goal is that you are always in a state of pre-success failure, and that will wear you down.  You get a rush when you reach the goal, but then you are stuck with the let down afterwards, and are dumped into a new state of pre-success failure.  On the other hand, when you practice a system, you win every time you correctly apply your system.

2.  Systems are flexible.  People can only manage one, or maybe two, goals at any one time.  That’s a problem because it blocks you off from other lines of approach and attack.  If your goal is to, say, implement a full chemical inventory in a new computer system, you may miss the fact that it would work better in old-fashioned, boring excel.

3.  Systems work immediately.  If you are convinced you need to pass this course or that course to become a lab manager, you are crippling yourself before you get past the course, and making yourself lazy afterwards.  With systems-thinking, I become a lab manager anew each day when I wake up.

4. Systems are anti-fragile, goals are fragile.  This concept is popularized by Nicolas Nassim Taleb.     Some things are fragile and will break apart under shock.  Some things are robust and will tend to stay the same when shocked.  And some things are anti-fragile, which will grow strong when shocked.  Lab management has to fall into category three if it is to be successful (the editor of JCHAS wrote an article on nuclear subs, saying that in the US navy, it’s the rule that any time a part breaks in any submarine, it is replaced in all submarines – that’s anti-fragility) .  I’m continually refining my daily and weekly systems, adding and upgrading ways of doing things, always checking, not just for lessons from mistakes in the lab, but from mistakes from elsewhere.

Your system will largely be determined by the kind of lab you manage.  Whatever it is, one thing you should do is throw away all goal stuff like Key Performance Indicators and the rest of it.  It doesn’t mean you won’t fulfill these criteria (that’s your obligation to your employers and to those whose safety you care for).  It means that you design your system such that these criteria emerge organically.

For example: let’s say your lab’s KPI is to present a comprehensive chemical inventory.  If you review and update your inventory each week as part of your system, that will happen on its own.  Or let’s say the KPI is passing some energy-efficiency award: if you tour the lab each day, turning off lights and lowering fume hood sashes, that will take care of itself.

Here is the skeleton of my lab management system, which has proved anti-fragile so far:

  • Get to work at 8:00 a.m., and stock my lab manager pouch carefully.
  • Read one journal (Chemical Health and Safety, Fire Safety, Reliability Engineering & System Safety etc.)  cover to cover each day, making notes on the salient points.
  • Write this blog twice a week, based on information gathered from the lab
  • Maintain my lab manager’s journal, including the rolling to-do list (there’s a post on this coming)
  • Walk through and inspect the lab each day
  • Get all orders out on the same day they are requested
  • Check gas stocks twice a week.
  • Immediately follow up with all requests and issues.

There are a number of other elements and sub-systems I haven’t listed here (lab induction, Risk Assessment etc.) but you get the idea.

Recommended reading:

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