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A temporary supervisor reports from the front lines.

A temporary supervisor reports from the front lines

Arriving at her first supervisory job to find broken equipment, an untrained staff, and no help in sight, this intrepid technologist learned a great deal about management.

At one time or another, most technologists probably say to themselves, "I could do a better job than my supervisor" or think, "If I were in charge. . . ." I had a chance to explore that possibility just over a year ago, when I was temporarily put at the helm. * The sweet life. When the opportunity to try out my supervisory skills presented itself to me, I had been enjoying life as a temporary technologist for only a few months. Employed by a few agencies around the country, I had chosen assignments in states that my husband and I felt like visiting at the time. He is an excellent cook and can always find work in a local restaurant.

A temporary worker can bask in the gratitude that an overworked lab heaps upon a hardworking fill-in replacement. Mine was a life of great satisfaction and few permanent responsibilities. This peaceful period came to an abrupt halt in February 1990. * A new chapter. I guess I had always harbored a secret vision of myself as a leader. When my coordinator at one of the placement agencies asked whether I had ever been a supervisor, I said no--but I was immediately intrigued.

I had never held the title of supervisor. My laboratory experience before our travels had consisted of seven and a half years as a rotating technologist on the second shift at a hospital lab. I had gained solid skills but learned very little about running a lab. Like most second-shift staff members, I felt driven to get through our heavy workload. Anything the least bit unusual, including routine instrument maintenance, was left for the day shift.

Nevertheless, I felt sure I could oversee a small rural lab. I did have some supervisory experience: When my husband and I owned a small restaurant, I helped manage the staff. I decided to pursue the opening. * In the dark. The agency explained that a 40-bed community hospital in a small desert town in Arizona needed a supervisor immediately. "Something is not quite right," my coordinator mused, "but they aren't talking."

This information was not exactly encouraging. I had to know more before I could make a decision. We speculated: Did they have a staffing crisis? Antiquated equipment one step from being exhibited at the Smithsonian? Dr. Jekyll as chief pathologist?

At the same time, I realized that the hospital administration must be having doubts about taking on an inexperienced temporary supervisor. I decided to sell myself. After the agency and the hospital had negotiated, I spoke directly to the hospital administrator. I pointed out that if things were really that bad, I couldn't make them much worse, and might actually do some good until they could find a permanent supervisor. They decided to give me a try.

I learned that the current supervisor planned to leave several days before my arrival, his departure the result of a long-standing conflict between the lab and hospital administration. The situation was complicated by difficulties in communicating with three newly hired medical technologists from the Philippines. The supervisor who was leaving had strongly opposed hiring the foreign MTs and had judged them "completely incompetent and untrainable" within 24 hours of their arrival. * Mission impossible? My assignment was full of challenges. I would be expected to keep the lab operating on three shifts. This might not be easy, since two of the six technologists were about to resign out of loyalty to the departing supervisor. After they left, my senior staff member would have been at the lab for all of four months. In addition, I had to evaluate the three foreign MTs to see whether they truly were untrainable and should be sent home.

Another task was to familiarize myself with the lab's instrumentation. I was unacquainted with every major piece of equipment in the lab and had to learn the basic operation in a hurry. Two days before I arrived, a consultant had come in to teach the foreign technologists the basics of the main chemistry analyzer, so they had a two-day head start on me. * D day. The morning of my arrival, I found everyone clustered around the hematology analyzer. Their baffled expressions revealed that each had taken a crack at fixing the machine--and failed.

I introduced myself in a decidedly chilly atmosphere. Trying to sound as intelligent as possible, I asked what had been done so far. They had called a service rep--who was hundreds of miles away, a common peril of remote labs. Besides, they said, "He was here last week and didn't fix a thing."

I asked whether they could do centrifuged hematocrits instead. I thought every lab in America had an old reliable microhematocrit centrifuge on hand. Not so, they said. (I would eventually find it stuffed in a cabinet.) A technologist thrust her chin at me and said, "You're in charge. What are you going to do?"

An aide, bless her heart, timidly suggested calling a lab at a small hospital on a nearby Indian reservation. "That's a good idea," I said brightly, trying not to sound too relieved. "Will they help us out?"

"Maybe," replied a gloomy old-timer.

"They're probably not there," added another.

"Let's call and find out," I said, still smiling but starting to feel desperate. Luckily, the lab staff was there and agreed to help.

My first day on the job ended with one crisis temporarily averted, a centrifuge borrowed and installed, a quick in-service on its use organized, a demand issued for a new weekend schedule, the news that my big monthly reagent order was due in four days, and a 15-minute introduction to the computer system.

As expected, two employees turned in their resignations shortly after my arrival. Even so, I felt that our remaining staff could run the lab efficiently.

Meanwhile, I was getting an intensive hands-on crash course in operating the chemistry analyzer. The vendor's 24-hour service hot line came in handy. The people at the other end of the line soon learned to recognize my voice. * On the spot. I found myself in the paradoxical position of being the newest staff member, and therefore knowing the least in terms of day-to-day operations, yet being the person everyone looked to for answers. I tried to be honest about what I did and didn't know, to solicit comments from everyone, and then to make a decision and accept the consequences.

Each day, I tried to take a small step in reeorganizing the lab. I placed a log sheet next to the appropriate instrument instead of across the room, moved supplies needed for each procedure to the storage space closest to where the procedure would be performed, and reduced a collage of paper scraps to a single telephone list. I documented all changes and described our progress in a weekly memo to the staff.

I realized that the changes I was instituting were another source of stress. Therefore, I decided to get them over with during the first couple of weeks instead of dragging out the process longer.

I personally went to each staff member to ask for suggestions. Most were responsive, but some still held a grudge due to my predecessor's departure. I took care to thank them all for their advice. * Inspection. During my third week as supervisor, a state inspector showed up. The state of Arizona wanted to make sure that all medical testing was being done under the direct control of the laboratory. Even fingerstick glucose tests, formerly done by the nursing staff, now had to be under the lab's supervision.

I answered the inspector's questions as well as I could and fervently promised to correct our minor deficiencies. When he left, he shook my hand and said, "I think you're doing a good job, but I sure don't envy you." * Training. I now had to organize in-service training for the lab employees. For this I brought in outside help. Technical representatives from different companies arrived to discuss their equipment and demonstrate routine maintenance.

My next assignment was to set a target date for taking over the fingerstick glucoses. Doing this wouldn't involve much additional work except for the solo night staffer. She was expected to draw blood in the emergency room, run tests in the lab, and do fingersticks on the floor--sometimes simultaneously. Fortunately, a few ICU nurses offered to learn the procedure and follow the lab's quality control guidelines. This unexpected support guaranteed a backup for busy nights. * Culture shock. Now to confront our difficulties with the new technologists. Greeted with hostility and rejection upon arrival at the lab, which coincided with their arrival in the United States, they naturally had a poor self-image and lacked confidence. In addition, their experience with modern instrumentation was minimal.

These workers were not completely comfortable with blood banking, American style. I brought in a consultant to present seminars and update the section manual, making our procedures easier to understand. Progress was remarkable.

Certain cultural differences surprised me. For example, the Filipinos' politeness sometimes got in their way. They hesitated to tell anyone anything that might be upsetting. Knowing that lifelong patterns are not easily changed, I tried to show them that assertiveness is not necessarily the same as rudeness. They caught on. * Showing off. During my stint in the desert, we invited the entire hospital staff and the public to an open house for National Medical Laboratory Week. The lab staff enjoyed showing off their instruments and demonstrating their prowess. The event proved a turning point in their professional pride and in the hospital staff's perception of the lab. * Onward. After three and a half months, my assignment was completed. The hospital had hired a permanent replacement, but the staff would be on their own for nearly a month until this person arrived. I put each Filipino technologist in charge of one lab department: chemistry, hematology, and blood bank. They were trained and ready. They seemed to feel comfortable with their new responsibilities as I said goodbye. Their latest postcard assures me that all is well.

It was tough to leave, but I must say I felt relief as I climbed into my van on that last day. Each moment had been filled with its share of problems. I was more than ready to return to my former life-style. My husband and I headed for Kotzebue, Alaska--and, it turned out, another job as a temporary laboratory supervisor. * Hindsight. My brief stint as a supervisor opened my eyes. Supervisors set the tone for the entire department, not only with the procedures and policies they establish but also with their personalities and a thousand nonverbal signals they send out each day.

The supervisor is looked upon as the person with all the answers. In my case, that was far from true. I chose to admit that I didn't know everything and I actively solicited others' ideas. I was willing to make decisions, however, and to take responsibility for them.

I learned that it is extremely important for a supervisor to keep her word, however trivial the matter may seem. In addition, I found that there can never be too much communication, usually achieved best when issued in written form and reinforced verbally.

Did I ever regret taking on the assignment? Not a bit. There were certainly days when I thought I had bitten off more than I could gracefully chew. Still, the satisfaction of trying something new and seeing it work--or seeing it not work and figuring out why--more than made up for the day-to-day problems.

Perhaps most important, I learned that employees perform well when top-quality work is expected and acknowledged. The relationship between employee and supervisor can be warm and satisfying. I was immensely pleased when an employee remarked, "From the QC program to the posters on the walls to the new slide trays, you created this lab. We like it very much."

In mid-October I will complete my third supervisory assignment, this time in Barrow, Alaska. Temporary work can be wearing on one's mental health, but it certainly provides a worthwhile learning experience.

At the moment I have no ambition to jump into a full-time supervisory position--but who knows what the future holds in store?

Lyn Kidder is (temporarily) temporary supervisor in the laboratory at Alaska Native Hospital, U.S. Public Health Service, Barrow, Alaska.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:learning about laboratory management
Author:Kidder, Lyn
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:What it takes to be a successful consultant.
Next Article:Turning around the behavior of uncooperative employees.

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