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How to improve your lab's productivity.

A supervisor knows when employees are not working at their full capacity. Much less evident, though, is how to make them work harder; the supervisor is apt to complain about staff shortcomings and try to live with them. That's what has happened in each of these situations:

Bob does just enough work to get by. He's in the laboratory from 7 to 3, and not one minute more. He takes long breaks, has extended lunches, and uses up every one of his allowable sick days.

Louise is careless. She is forever overlooking or forgetting something. Her records are a mess.

Helen is slow. She takes longer to do a procedure than anybody else on the staff. She claims she avoids committing errors by taking her time, but it is clear there's more to the whole story than that.

Eventually, any supervisor will become frustrated by low productivity. Under the pressure of a heavy workload, it's easy to lose one's temper and angrily demand more from employees. However, the more a supervisor points out what employees appear to be doing wrong, the more they are likely to offer excuses. For every critical comment made, these staff members will offer matching excuses and, possibly, counter-criticisms. Here's one example:

Supervisor: "Your records are a mess!"

Technologist: "I don't have time to keep good records because I'm overworked."

Supervisor: "You get less done than anyone else in the lab."

Technologist: "Maybe because I'm the only one around here who takes the time to do the work properly."

Productivity problems will obviously persist if a supervisor doesn't know how to get more work out of the staff. Efforts at improvement may seem futile: "What's the use? No matter what I do or say, they won't change."

Also, hard experience teaches that employees responds predictably to criticism. They don't like it! They get angry and feel they're being mistreated. Staff members may grudgingly pay lip service to supervisory demands and may even change--for a while. But eventually they will slip quietly back into their old ways.

Another tack is suggested by the realization that, while employees often react poorly to criticism, they do like to be heard and given a chance to participate. A supervisor who acts on this knowledge finds that the staff will usually try harder to make things work. Encouraging individual initiative and stimulating employees to solve their own problems gives them an opportunity to develop constructive tendencies. They strive on their own to improve.

The following five-phase program will help supervisors guide laboratory employees to productivity gains.

* Fact finding. An essential first step in any productivity improvement program is to get everyone in the work group to examine operating efficiencies and inefficiencies and identify problems that need to be solved. One way is by filling out the questionnaire shown in Figure I. The survey assumes that all staff members want to do the best possible job and desire job satisfaction, even if obstacles make these goals difficult to attain at times.

* Feedback of survey results. After analyzing the completed questionnaires, the supervisor must take three important steps:

1. Demonstrate interest. Convince staff members that their responses have been carefully reviewed. This is a very critical aspect of a productivity improvement program. Employees want to feel that they can get management's full attention. A supervisor gives technologists a needed boost just by listening to them. It feels good to complain without fear of penalty and helps clear the air.

2. Establish limits. Discuss the survey findings with higher management and establish the limits for any improvement program the staff might recommend. When meeting with technologists as a group, it is important to pass along clear guidelines concerning what the supervisor is empowered to change and which kinds of suggestions can be implemented.

3. Supply feedback. Discuss the overall findings with all survey participants. After revealing their own feelings, they will naturally want to compare what they said with the responses of others. Sometimes employees learn that their viewers are unique and may decide to abandon them. At other times, discovering that many others feel exactly as they do will tend to reinforce their viewpoints.

* Making recommendations. After reviewing the survey data with technologists at a feedback meeting, the supervisor asks them to decide which improvements they jointly believe will make a significant difference in their level of effectiveness and job satisfaction. The group submits its recommendations on the form shown in Figure II. This format requires the staff to state a problem clearly, offer a specific recommendation for solving it, and assign a priority to the proposed action.

* Organizing for action. Appoint a task force to decide--with supervisory approval--which recommendations should be implemented. The task force should consider the personnel, materials, and resources that are necessary to carry out the plan. It should also establish a timetable for implementation. And it's essential for the task to state what measurable results it expects from each action. For example:

Personel factors--reductions in absenteeism, voluntary and involuntary employee separations, and grievances.

Performance factors--improved output (quality and quantity measurements).

Materials and resources--reductions in the amount and rate of usage through better utilization.

Time--improved allocation and utilization.

* Action and follow-up. In the final phase of the progam, the approved plans are put into effect and carefully monitored. Progress reports should be issued regularly to each group member.

Let's see what happened in two laboratories that tried this productivity improvement program:

Case I. The laboratory manager was concerned about the low productivity of the clerical support services. All of the section supervisors complained regularly about the amount of time it took to get something typed and the number of typing errors.

In the past, the lab manager had attempted unsuccessfully to get clerk-typist to improve the quantity and quality of their work. His usual approach was to confront them, issue warnings and, when necessary, take disciplinary action. Finally, he turned to the five-phase productivity improvement program.

During the fact-finding phase, the manager learned that the clerical staff felt there was no payoff for working harder. In fact, the reverse was true: The more productive clerk-typist tended to be overworked and did not receive any recognition or reward for their extra effort.

Based on these findings, he formed a task force made up of clerical staff members and section supervisors. They developed recommendations for a system of formal recognition and rewards directly related to quantity of output and quality standards. The recommendation were implemented, and productivity improved immediately. Now, a year later, the clerical staff is sustaining the higher level of performance.

Case II. The immunolgy supervisor at another laboratory was concerned about her technologists' low productivity. When she had worked at the bench, she consistently turned out 25 per cent more test results than any of other her staff members did a present. The supervisor discussed her concerns with each technologist individually and also brought up the problem at staff meetings. Productivity continued to lag.

Embarking on the productivity improvement program, the supervisor learned through fact finding that the staff she was making conflicting demands. For example, she expected technologists to run a greater number of routine tests, yet she often asked them to interrupt their regular work to handle time-consuming special immunology requests. Once the supervisor realized that work flow patterns and her own actions contributed to the low productivity problem, she and her employees were able to develop a mutually acceptable improvement plan.

In both case, significant productivity gains grew directly out of a thorough fact-finding and problem-solving effort. Everyone affected by the problem activity participated in the quest for a solution.

If your staff's productivity could stand some improvement, you might want to try the same approach.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:five-step program
Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Aug 1, 1984
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