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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Darth Vader: Micromanager

Having a bold personality does not guarantee management success.  History is littered with examples of great leaders who possessed a Type A personality:  Napoleon, Churchill, and Qin Shi Huang [first emperor of China] to name just a few.  Forceful, direct and unswerving in the drive to achieve their goals, even through adversity.  But those are leaders from the past.  What about the leaders of the future? How will their management styles stack up? Example: Darth Vader. [Spoiler Alert: do not read further if you have not seen Star Wars.]

Few would deny that Darth Vader is a goal-oriented, driven individual.  He sits atop a vast organization [aka Galactic Empire] and answers only to the CEO [Emperor Palpatine].  Clearly Vader is in a very envious position.  Capital improvement projects (Death Star) are underway, his organization is outfitted with the latest technology upgrades, and last but not least, he is surrounded by a highly trained team of commanders and lieutenants monitoring the progress of the entire organization [empire].  Seemingly Vader has it all under control. Not so fast. The first evidence of his failed management skills appears when he must travel across the Galactic Empire to check on the progress of the Death Star.  Curiously, he could have handled this in a Go To Meeting®.  Displeased with the actions of his subordinates he immediately terminates their employment.  Vader has developed a pattern of knee jerk reactions.  Never does he provide a PIP to the errant staff and thus they are not given the chance to correct their behavior.  Eventually it is evident that if Darth Vader wants something done right, he must do it himself.  eg. torture Princess Leia.  Impatient and with an inability to delegate even the simplest of tasks, Darth Vader would not be a suitable leader in most successful organizations.

Despite my son having warned me not to mix franchises: Vader is a management failure compared to Star Trek’s Captain Picard [also a Type A personality]. Picard empowers his staff to make the decisions in their respective departments. Picard has clearly outlined his expectations to his management team of Riker, Data, Worf, LaForge, and Crusher.  These staff are clearly aligned with the corporate mission statement: “Go boldly”, and they manage their individual staffs to those ends, fully understanding the extent of their decision boundaries and thus not burdening Picard to make trivial decisions.  Further, Picard understands that familiarity breeds contempt and thus does not mix with his direct reports by not inviting himself to their poker games.   

Management success by Type A personalities depends on their ability to listen, empower¸ and teach. Proof: Trek franchise= 12 movies; Star Wars franchise = 6 movies.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Comfort Zone or Rut?

The employee who does not try to reach outside of their comfort zone, endangers the success of the organization and stifles their career development.  Recognizing this form of complacency is step one.  Taking action on it is step two.  Getting buy-in is step three.  
Science-nerd TV show, The Big Bang Theory has a great snippet of dialog when Penny says”: … let’s try and get you out of your comfort zone.” Sheldon answers, ”Why would we want to do that? It’s called the comfort zone for a reason.”  In fact, why would we want our employees to operate outside of their comfort zone?  We spend lots of time training them to learn new things which are built upon the foundations that they have built over the years.  But I’ve seen your lab, and you have that one indispensable employee.  You know who I am talking about. When they are absent for vacation it is difficult for the lab to run smoothly, not Earth-shattering stuff, but none-the-less work does not flow right and sometimes it takes their back-up a little longer to find the file, run the blood processor,  or sometimes to even make the coffee turn out right.  I used to be in that situation too.  Then I changed it.

In my large operations services group, I had two directors, Albert and Forest.  Each was responsible for approximately half of the organization with over two dozen supervisors and a few hundred technical staff each.  When one was off fishing, their competent direct-reports knew which decisions to make and which to kick up the ladder.  They infrequently “cross-pollinated” with the other group.  These were not silos, but had divergent job functions.  I had an epiphany on my way to work one day when I was considering their value to the organization.  The company would be really screwed if one of these two got an offer they couldn’t refuse from some outside company.  I devised my plan and called a meeting when I arrived at work:
It went something like this: “Forest, It’s July 1 and on January 1 you are going to take over Albert’s job.  Albert, In 6 months you are going to take over Forest’s job.”  They replied: “But, but, but…” and offered a number of concerns about this out-of-the-blue idea and how they liked the staff that they had reporting to them now and did not want to give their right hand people up to the other person and so on.  My reasoning was that while they were experts in their areas right now, they would be more valuable to the organization if they were skilled in the other one’s job.  The company would end up with not an expert over each area, but rather have two experts for each area. Not only would they add value to the organization, but they also would vastly increase their own value.  I offered that they could return to their former positions in a year.

The instructions given had significant implications:  The move on January 1 had to occur without incident and be transparent to both the external clients and the internal study directors (P.I.’s) .  They had 6 months to prepare for the exchange and were challenged to not drop the baton.  While Albert and Forest were in reluctant agreement to go along, their soon-to-be- former right-handers were not happy about this.  The study directors were also concerned.  They too were in a comfort zone.  I was surely nuts to do this.

January 1 came around and Albert and Forest had spent the last 6 months getting familiar with the staff, the processes, the clients and the new subset of study directors.  As the deadline got closer the decisions made within their groups were done in consultation with each other.   While the event of the job exchange occurred without a hiccup or stumble, there was a more profound change that was brought to light:  Because Albert and Forest were operating in new territory, there were no assumptions made on the skills of their newly inherited staffers.  Some of the skills were observed with a new set of eyes and employees who might have been marginalized or not taken seriously were listened to with a new set of ears. 

I was only looking at the top level to have the greatest impact, but indeed this change positively affected the organization to a far deeper degree.  Even before a year had elapsed, neither party was interested in taking their former position back.  Everyone had been pushed out of their rut and were hitting top speed.

Friday, May 18, 2012

There Are No “Do Overs” When It Comes To Clients.

No client wants a new person working on their project. Absolutely reliable and unflinching in their execution.  That is what is expected, because that is what sold them on doing work in your house.  It does not matter that staff turnover in your lab has been on the rise since your competitor has been poaching your good talent.  After all, that contract was signed weeks before the exodus began and there is no way to explain that your team isn’t ready.  Despite the short term rehearsal, it will become quickly evident that your staff has not gelled.  This will be most evident when it is “crunch time” [always with a client present].  When the error occurs it will be difficult to explain it through your reddened face. 
Compare this to your visit to a restaurant.  When your steak dinner arrives with a well done steak instead of medium rare, who got it wrong?  Was it the waiter who took the order down wrong, was it the chef who left it on the grill too long? Was it the sous chef who assembled the order? Or was it the waiter again who did not check the finished order vs. what was ordered? Just like you the waiter is embarrassed that the system did not work as designed, someone screwed up and you want it fixed.  Your guest is inconvenienced.  When the guests come to town again they will probably choose another restaurant. In order to immediately address the problem, your order gets re-submitted, the kitchen increases the order’s priority in line and someone else’s order gets bumped or in many cases, their order is rushed through and thereby risking the accuracy of that order.  The same is true in your laboratory: if the process is not followed correctly and has to be re-done/re-analyzed/re-processed, it will be rescheduled (if you are fortunate) at a time that is neither convenient for you or your other clients.
Because so many people have a role in the process (at both the restaurant and your lab), it is not easy to say that it was a one-time event.  There are a great deal of double-checks in place and the thing that was missing most in either process was a single responsible person to ensure everyone was executing their role as prescribed.   The client does not care.  You promised this, but delivered that.  When it comes time to choosing your lab vs. another on the next go round, this incident, no matter how low of an impact on the final result, will be a factor in that determination. While I have heard many clients explain that errors happen in their lab too, they are risking their reputations more when an external check is going to be written.  The next time your double soy decaf macchiato turns out not to be decaf, you will likely carefully choose which coffee house stop at on the way to work.  The same is true for your clients.  Will they come back?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Asian Tipping Point – Is your motivation to move life science work to China justified?

There have been two main reasons to conduct life science work in China: 1) Capable staff with low labor costs and 2) the leading way to sell your products in China is to do some of the development work in China.  It might be that first reason is becoming a less valid of a point.
In 2006 on my first of many trips to China, after a 16 hour plane ride, found us watching an impressive Beijing acrobatic show.  The acrobats were highly motivated to succeed and were well trained.  Without putting too simple of a point on it, that also describes the characteristics of the throng of life science professionals in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai.  In a related item, somewhere along the way, I had understood that one of the reasons Steve Jobs placed his iPhone production facility in China was that he would be able to hire 5,000 engineers within a 2 weeks of requesting them.  This was something that he could not do in the United States.  True or not [and I prefer to think it is a true story] in China, one finds themselves surrounded by a throng of eager life-science focused college graduates who absorb training like dry sponges absorb water.  On top of that, their wages lagged seriously behind typical western levels to the point of being intern-esque.  With some careful leadership and direction the eager chemists, biochemists and biologists will perform to your expectations, mostly. 

Chinese business leaders who have faith in their staff, work to meet the expectations of their western clients through the use of technical insurance policies.  These insurance policies are often embodied in the form of returnees also known as sea turtles , [Western-trained graduates who have re-emigrated to China].  There are 2 great positives in regards to sea turtles: 1) they are very well trained to Western expectations and 2) they speak Chinese and can flawlessly communicate with the technical staff and importantly in the appropriate context.  This latter point is a major stumbling block for western trainers even with the use of language translators. While the use of sea turtles alleviates some concern of western clients (or western home offices), the downside is that the wages, that were so attractive to attract business to China, are on the rise.  A rule of thumb is that the more western training the higher the salaries.  This is sometimes the result of the requirement for western-style schools for their children, an upgrade in living quarters (condos/villas/apartments) and so forth. Ge and Yang (2012) cite “skill-biased technological change” as a significant reason for a 202% increase in Chinese wages between 1992 and 2007.

As time wears on the wage justification becomes far less compelling. The tipping point on placing work in China may be based less on labor savings, but instead on the ease of moving test biological samples through Customs on a reliable schedule.   When the labor costs are closer, all of the other expenses related to time-delayed results reporting, audit travel, and translation services may not justify your global plans.


Ge, Suqin and Yang, Dennis Tao, Changes in China's Wage Structure. IZA Discussion Paper No. 6492. Available at SSRN: April 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Who Is Defining Your Social Media Presence?

Why would you let your 20-somethings paint the image of your company? You’ve seen it happen. It happens throughout the day. Every day. When someone asks a question, three people pull out their smartphones and google-it, wikipedia-it, facebook-it or look it up on LinkedIn.  If they can’t find it, or can’t find enough current information, they will Twitter a friend to see if they know anything about it.  Is your company a topic in the "twitter-verse"?  How is your organization portrayed?  Where is your life science company/organization when they are the source of the quest for this information? Are you unwilling to participate or is your company just a passive bystander?  No need to be a victim. It’s time to change all that.  Take control of your social media exposure:
1.      Ensure your company has a Linkedin® company page. Periodically, the employees are way ahead of the company when it comes to linkedin®.  Once in a while, the employee will have a Linkedin profile, but the company will not.  Eventually, the marketing/business development staff will catch-up and formalize it the organization’s Linkedin® presence. The sooner the better. Your company is negatively impacted by being absent from LinkedIn.
2.      No doubt the business development staff will already have a presence on Linkedin®.  They have already learned that this is where networking, leads, and competitive surveillance occur. Ensure your organizational leaders have a Linkedin® presence as well.  Does every leader in your organization have a Linkedin® profile?  It represents your company well to make that happen.  If the CEO/President doesn't want to tend to it, let their administrative assistant handle it.  They are probably already screening the CEO’s email. I have made many connections through Linkedin and not only has it lead to some great business opportunities it has also fostered business relationships that would not have been previously possible as several has sought me out to ask no-strings technical questions or get introductions to others in my network.  This is not intended to be an ad for Linkedin®, but I have not yet seen a downside to this business network.  I have some dabblings in Facebook®’s business networking app called BranchOut®, but right now it is not of sufficient mass to amount to much. BTW: the HR staff have already learned the best place to identify expert staff is LinkedIn.
3.      Your organization should have a Facebook page.  Again another opportunity to share the great things that your company is doing.  Did an employee get published? Was there a PR event?  The great thing about FB is that you can regulate the content and the comments.  Some companies, like McDonalds, have had disasters when they have opened up their FB pages to the whims of the public, but that is not really the best approach to take.  Let the employees crowd-source the content so that it doesn’t become just a stuffy business site.  There is not a “dislike” button on Facebook and the staff will amaze you at how they can express your organization’s noble mission.  Clients and potential employees will read what is written about you on FB.  While LinkedIn will describe what your organization does, Facebook will paint a picture of the work culture and environment. So given that tidbit:  Is your company going to be cast in the light of tagged photos of “keg stands” by the leadership team or by images of the water balloon toss at the company picnic? 
4.      Many of your employees would be happy to get twittered updates on events at the company.  They are doing it now, but between each other and it is not being disseminated from you. Show your staff that your company resides in the current year and are not dated in the past.  Don’t want to be followed by some people?  Block them from following your Twitter® feed.  You’ll likely find this to be unnecessary.
5.      avWho Life science organizations who do pre-clinical research do not have to hide from social media.  These companies do have critics, but those fringe groups don’t like a lot of other people or businesses either.  Your clients already are aware of these folks, and their comments are not going to dissuade them from doing business with you.  There is much noble work going on in pre-clinical labs and this light should not be ”hidden under a bushel”.  The UCLA School of Medicine is the poster child of what great presence a pre-clinical lab can have on Facebook.  Search them out.
Social media drives positive interest to your organization and despite the crowd-sourced nature of the beast it does not mean that you are giving away trade secrets or client information.  Rather than letting someone else paint a picture of your company, you take the lead and cast your company in the light that you prefer. You will not regret it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Scientist ≠ Operations Manager

The right tool for the right job.  You wouldn’t use pliers instead of a screw driver.  So why would you have your brilliant scientist lead the operations group?  There are three reasons a designated manager may be a more appropriate choice to run operations than your chief scientist who is responsible for the organizations’ lead product.

      1. The scientist needs to dedicate the maximum amount of time on product development.  The amount of time distracted from that mission negatively affects the product in some way.  Every hour working on budget forecasts is time taken away from opportunities to further develop the product, brainstorm with colleagues, or review product reports.  I have talked to numerous mixed-role scientists and time and again they get the most work completed after everyone else goes home: the questions stop, the phone isn’t ringing, and the interruptions cease.   After they have their eight hours in they can sink their teeth into the product issue at hand. I would add that this is not their most productive brain period.  They were fresh after that first cup of coffee this morning.  Not so much after that cup of coffee to keep them awake  late in the evening.

2.      Operations will always come in second place in the scientist’s mind.  Operations will always demand real-time attention NOW.  That decision must be made now because the downstream department might have to work overtime, the form needs to be signed now, and the high-maintenance employee must be counseled now.  Why would you give someone responsibilities for a role that they did not aspire to take?  Don’t get me wrong, the scientist enjoys working with a seasoned, trained staff who are all working towards the same goal.  Not a lot of hand-holding and plenty of practical problem-solving give and take.  Unfortunately, when performance review time comes around, how many hours will the scientist spend away from product development?

3.      The operations manager has one priority: Keeping operations at a point where the scientist does not have to concern themselves with operations.  They will have time for staff development, budget management, training program refinement, six sigma projects, management reports, human resource issues, and staff absence contingencies.  The operations manager understands the needs of the scientist, the goals of the company, and what must happen to keep all of the parts moving to achieve those goals.  The good operations manager does not act as an island upon themselves but utilizes a matrix approach to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Many organizations already have an established “go to” person who has not quite made the leap to operational manager.  Sadly, some of these folks are stymied in a mess of title/degree-issues and the H.R. department maybe holding up it's becoming official (read: w/pay).  Meanwhile the scientist is burning the midnight oil, not problem solving the product issue but instead are wondering how they will staff the upcoming holiday weekend.  You are losing money on this every week.  Make the right choice and free that scientist from those unwelcome bonds. 
 Disclaimer: To be fair there are some scientists who feel complete and comfortable if they pull the strings on every aspect of the business operation.  This includes not only operations, but the sales and marketing aspect of the business.  These individuals are few and frequently work in very small organizations. Much like a Swiss Army knife, these folks have a lot of tools at their disposal.  Unfortunately, you wouldn’t use a Swiss Army knife for any but the most infrequent of jobs.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


The blog has officially begun.  Watch this space for insights into Life Sciences Operational Management observations, theories, questions and concerns.  No need to re-invent the wheel,  sometimes a tune-up is all that is needed.