Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ask CJ: What to do about managers who get stuck on irrelevancies or pet peeves?

From the inbox, a good question:
Hey, CJ:  
I have a manager who gets stuck on mundane items that are not relevant to science or business, like keeping the lab tidy or making sure notebooks are in the right format. They seem to worry about this much more than, say, keeping projects focused on meeting budgets or deadline. 
They have this habit of bringing these issues up during all-hands meetings where it's clear that these issues aren't relevant to everyone, but they are at the forefront of the manager's thinking.  
How do I learn to work with this person? How can we redirect their thinking? Should I just knuckle under?  
Signed, Confused in [redacted]
Gee, Ci[r], I wish I knew. I guess I'd just say "knuckle under, it's the price of your job", but I am not very experienced in these matters.

Readers, what do you think? 

30 comments:

  1. I agree with CJ on this one. Keeping the lab tidy is important to the function of the lab and there may be a very good reason the notebooks have to be in a certain format. Even if there's not a good reason, do you really want to pick this battle?

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  2. Sometimes the small, seemingly irrelevant, details become critical. i.e., if you don't work clean and keep good records you can't expect to get good results.

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  3. Take his or her job in a Klingon promotion.

    More seriously: I'm not sure lab tidiness is irrelevant, because I don't know how sloppy or otherwise your benches are. Notebook format is 100% relevant (talk to your IP lawyer). Maybe a look in the mirror?

    Alternatively, being nicer: if you have concerns that are not being addressed or prioritized as you feel is necessary, perhaps you can volunteer to keep meeting minutes and send them out with an agenda prior to each meeting. That way you have at least some control over the agenda, and since it's fairly standard to start with action items from the previous meeting it should be easier to get priorities straightened out.

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  4. It's possible that your manager prioritizes badly, but neither of your examples demonstrate that: both are fairly important issues which, if a worker pushes them, will raise alarms with a competent manager.

    Tidiness is a part of safety. Maybe a third of my coworkers are habitually not tidy; as a result, I spend more time than I ought to wondering if the white powder around the balance is a known toxin (we have a bunch of toxicologists running around here). This is to be avoided.

    Lab notebook formats ensure that someone--maybe a manager, maybe a patent paralegal--actually understands what you did. Try reading someone else's notebooks from a year ago; the more their notebook structure matches yours, the more you will understand.

    If your manager suspects that you're not meeting lab standards on either count, pushing back is unlikely to help you (or your employer).

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  5. Swamp him/her with paperwork. This keeps them busy and looking important while staying off your back.

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    1. Ha: This sounds like an advice from experience, after a long career, at a major pharma company

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  6. If that's the worst thing you have to deal with...? Stop being a whiner, clean your shit up, and cash your paycheck.

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  7. It's very possible that they are not completely comfortable with their level of technical expertise in your area, and focusing on things that they can clearly take leadership on, and see and understand results is their way of maintaining a sense of control over the group. The best thing you can do is work to minimize issues by complying. If you want to be aggressive, take a leadership role on those issues yourself. Organize weekly cleanups the night before group meeting, and make a schedule arranging everyone to verify and sign each others' notebooks.

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    1. Thanks, Anon! This is helpful and will help me turn over a new leaf. - Ci[r]

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  8. There are a lot of reasons why you might see a manger harping on a specific issue that seems trivial to you.

    If you have multiple managers above you in the organisation, it's possible that this person's role is specifically about handling seemingly-mundane issues like lab maintenance, notebook formatting, etc.. Many research groups have specific lab managers for this purpose.

    If they've got broad responsibilities and this is the only thing they're bringing up in all-hands meetings, is it possible that the other issues are either under control or are exclusively this person's responsibility, and therefore don't merit a mention to the group? They might be bringing up lab cleanliness and lab-book issues because success in those areas is dependent upon other people's cooperation, and those third parties aren't keeping up their end of the bargain.

    If there is a problem with them focussing on trivial issues to the detriment of other responsibilities, don't "redirect their thinking" or otherwise attempt to passive-aggressively get them behaving the way you want them to behave. Talk with them about it directly, or go to the appropriate part of the organisational hierarchy as appropriate.

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  9. it is probably better to change the manager, if you cannot stand it. You can also ignore him but he might take it as affront, and screw up your performance review in retaliation. But if he were to acquire a mysterious chemical allergy which prevents him from getting anywhere near the lab... Do your research, and report back.

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  10. It looks to me that the original problem is a question of values. I can't tell the Signed Confused what to do, so I'll just write what I decided to do myself.

    I have struggled with both tidiness and notebooks. Most of us probably have struggled with that at some level as well. In the end, regardless of the result of my self-improvement effort I have come to appreciate the manager's emphasis not because I became a believer, but because I got solid numbers to guide me.

    My top value here is the desire for more good science. The "more" piece is simple, more experiments = more mess in the lab and in the notebooks, and more apparent result to show. The "good" means that I need to know the effect of my work style on the quality of my product.

    So, I run the numbers on a few more complex experiments from my past. This included uncertainty estimates, impurities I couldn't figure out, time lost on writing reports with lower quality results and anything else I could get a numerical value for.

    I was blown away after realizing that a tiny relaxation of my attention could wipe out 50% or more of the financial/time value of my experiment whether it was in process development or in process safety. The loss values goes up even faster for more complex DoE setups.

    If you ever invested in the stock market you can appreciate that after losing 50% of your capital you need to get 100% of return on the next investment just to break even. An initial loss of 75% of value requires 300% ROI to regain your capital. Bottom line – getting back what you last is HARD.

    The value and quality of lab work follows similar math. You can consider the loss of experiment value as additional uncertainty. Uncertainty with normal distribution decreases with the square root of the number of repeat experiments. A 50% additional uncertainty means that I would need to perform 4x the original number of experiments just to get back to the level of confidence I originally expected.

    I figured that missing out on this one extra experiment crammed at the end of the day and cleaning up my notebook and my lab instead would save 3/4 of any EXTRA work. Before this analysis I could have dismissed any complains toward my work as just nagging (well, there were times I have…). However, I couldn’t make myself do the quadruple work just to get my results to the level my values demanded.

    Now, don’t trust my hacking. Run your own numbers, please.

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    1. This was supposed to be a signed post, sorry

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  11. I agree with most commentators that there can be legitimate rational to keep lab clean and notebook records consistent hence do need to examine the reasons this it upsets you then probably adapt or find way to deal with it. It almost sounds a bit of "style over substance" attitude that is very prevalent today in companies which can be frustrating and only overcome to a degree by working to being productive and efficient while possible slightly bending the rules/standards (speaking as one whose bench was often quite untidy, even with a at least once a week total clean-up, but typically worked on-time and successful in meeting projected goals; majority of my mangers accepted this in me once demonstrated). If the manager is inexperienced particularly from a science background it could be they are not confident or sure how to deal with and motivate people well where then focus on littler issues they can control or impact rather than those more difficult ones where fortunately are not seemingly trying to micromanage (which probably is much worse). At the same time if other people have the same issues it could be worthwhile discussing it with the manager to learn why the particular emphasis as long as not done in confrontational way. Frankly it sounds like a good occasion where might apply Myers-Briggs or Emotional Intelligence profiling so one understands the variations involved in interactions and hopefully both the manager and you/others would appreciate how approaches and sensitivity differ and work to modulate to happier place.

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  12. Perhaps this manager has been bitten by something in the past that makes them think it is highly rational to act in this way (perhaps it is). I for one shake my head at less tidy colleagues who spill a reaction and have to paper towel extract and repurify from a dirty bench. It may not happen often, but when it does, you can be glad your lab is bloody tidy.

    I do agree with the other commenters that these are actually critical issues. It is strange, however, to need to harp on about them. If these are valued by the lab, why isn't there a culture of orderliness? If these are valued by the manager, why aren't they valued by the rest of the lab?

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  13. This sounds like a lab manager more than a manager - manager. Perhaps they spent some time doing the former, and have the habits ingrained now?

    I have to concur with most posters that those are valid concerns and if you can improve, or even meet someone half way, you will find yourself better off. If they start finding new things to pick on you about, then...

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  14. Since we don't know what your exact habits are, we can't rule out that they actually are a problem. So this provides me with a useful opportunity for a generalized rant about poor lab notebook habits: It is completely frustrating to be working on something similar to what someone else has already worked out and to go into their notebook and find no useful details at all. Things like "ran reaction, [##] g yield" with no other information. Or when people duplicate related experiments but don't update the text to say what they actually did. So the notebook says they did one thing, when in reality they did something quite different. For example, there was a problem with the workup, purification, etc., so they spent a fair amount of time fixing it, but not writing any of that down, so I have to have the same problems, and spend my afternoon reinventing the wheel. And of course, when I ask them, they remember nothing. So I can sympathize with a manager who may have run into these issues and is maybe more sensitive to them. After all, for most of us, when it comes down to it, it is our job to generate intellectual property, so, you know, things like this are kind of important.

    But assuming your habits really are up to snuff, then I agree, it can be challenging to work with someone who hasn't learned to trust their group to be able to do the job they hired them to do.

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  15. I sympathize with the "ran reaction, ##g" pages. I have seen those mostly when the project gets tossed over the fence for the first scale-up. Tech transfer meetings get really short when this happens.

    At least some of these one liners are encouraged in labs where the chemists are evaluated by the number of reactions and registrations. People follow the money, easy.

    On the process development side I had a dream that automated data collection (all thermocouples, hotplates, stirrers etc. are on 24/7 data loggers) and automatic pull into an ELN would fix the missing info issue. This is still a dream mostly because ELNs seem to slow people down rather than making recording easier.

    For workup I used to have a video camera on trained on my buckets. Many departments (legal, EHS) in the company oppose this as the video becomes evidence if something goes wrong. I find the recording invaluable when comparing things like color changes, phase separation, viscosity etc. Fifteen sec video is worth 1000 words in the notebook.

    The manager is responsible for the group's output, so not asking about the IP meat would be slightly suicidal... The position becomes instantly available as soon as any project moves to close to market.

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  16. @Ci[r]

    Are you new to your organization? Has your manager unambiguously communicated job responsibilities and expectations to you and your peers? Does your organization have documented Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)? Is your manager adhering to the SOPs?

    Without having extensive details about your situation, I would err on the side of caution and emphasize the importance of lab cleanliness and data management. Deficiencies in either aspect can lead to a lot of trouble, especially if your work involves manufacturing or quality control. Nobody wants to deal with EH&S, OSHA, or the FDA.

    Even if your work is more discovery-phase/contract research, tidy labs and notebooks are more consistent with best business practices. If your responsibility is to generate intellectual property, then it would behoove you to maintain proper documentation in case your work is subpoenaed due to a legal dispute.

    Ultimately, is it your responsibility to ensure that projects operate within budget or timelines? Political machinations notwithstanding, it is unlikely that any project manager in a for-profit organization could survive despite being habitually over-budget or past-due.

    Ultimately, if the issue is irreconcilable (i.e., diametrically opposed personalities) AND compromising your work-life balance, then either transfer to a more compatible work group or find a new job. Unless you have evidence that your manager has committed illegal acts, violated official corporate policies, or undermined corporate profitability, you are unlikely to get any institutional help in "redirecting your manager's thinking".

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  17. The problem is that MBA-types who don't understand our jobs are pleased by appearances. 5S seems to be the hot new management fad, which basically means "throw everything out" if you're fortunate enought not to have been subjected to it. The idea is to create the visual appearance of a start-up company - gleaming, brand-new benches and hoods, and no clutter because the start-up has only existed for a few months - which looks good to upper management. Additionally, it's easier to do a site closure or move if there aren't many stored chemicals or pieces of equipment. I've learned that it's easier to just throw something out and order a new one later than to get screamed at about housekeeping.

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    1. Jesus christ almighty. Don't even get me started on 5S. We threw a bunch of pails out and then one of our clients inquired about them. Management had a tough one out of this.

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    2. I know of a sister division of my parent company where people resorted to stashing spare parts at home to save them from the 5S monster - in many cases, obsolete parts that were needed for older machines still in use, but couldn't be re-ordered easily. I'm convinced the main purpose is to facilitate site closures - it must be hard for management to sort out a room full of stored equipment when the people who know what the mystery items are have all been laid off.

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  18. As a reminder: From an IP standpoint, notebooks are much less important with the introduction of the America Invents Act. One of the new rules is that IP on an invention is granted to the "first to file" instead of the "first to invent," meaning that a recorded date of an invention is meaningless if someone else files their provisional patent application before you do.

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  19. I haven't read the other comments yet, but it seems perfectly reasonable to want the lab tidy and notebooks kept in good order. It's important to keep order.

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  20. I agree with the majority of the comments here about the importance of housekeeping and notebooks. But just as a slight corrective, I'll note that I also had a similar annoying situation. At our department meetings housekeeping was brought up frequently, and it was clear to me that it had to do with our safety inspection metrics. Management didn't like our always getting dinged for housekeeping (specifically, sample labeling). Our safety inspections were carried out internally, and there was always pressure to find something 'wrong' with a lab; sample labeling is one of the easiest and most obvious things to spot, so (IMO) it got over-weighted.

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  21. My question is: Ci[r], did you have experience in other companies or have you just started there after recently graduating from school? The academic expectations for safety/cleanliness/repeatability are much different than industry, but did you work in a lab before that didn't have a problem?

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    1. Yes, I have experience in other companies. This is not the first manager I have worked with. As other commenters have speculated, they have not spent a lot of time learning systems and technical background. I do feel this is an area they feel that they can control. It's just weird.

      I know I have room to improve, so I will take Alex's advice (and many others) and just work on that and hope for the best. - Ci[r]

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    2. Best of luck to you! Hope it works out.

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  22. If they are more focused in BS like tidyness and notebook quality over actual science. Fuck them. Best synthetic chemist I know is the messiest fucker I've ever met and his lab book only makes sense to him.

    I'd quit and find a position where they care about science.

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    1. If this is just about looking tidy and the lab being always 100% inspection ready then sure, do as you say. Science matters when it can be repeated and communicated. Messy science with "accidental" catalysis and all-out mayhem is just that, a mess.

      The best synthetic chemist I know had 14 setups in a speck-free lab and run 6 scale-ups and 8 new preps every day six days a week 50 weeks a year on the clock. His clock run from 5 AM until 5 PM. The guy hated writing papers (his boss wrote them), but his lab book could be copied and pasted as the experimental section in any journal, no correction needed.

      As you can imagine he was the chemist who got me into synthetic chemistry. I will never be able to work like he did, but it at least I can aspire to it. I saw this level of focus and organization giving unmatched productivity.

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