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Running a lab is not so different from running a business. Like a business, a lab is made up of people with diverse skills who work as a team. A lab needs to be financed so that the required resources can be made available. Generally, a lab should have a plan with clear goals, and ways to achieve them. Most importantly, a lab needs someone to run it—someone who gives directions and makes all lab activities possible.
What Does Lab Management Entail?
The goal of lab management is to guide lab personnel to deliver their assigned duties within limited time and resources. This includes acquiring grants, personnel, equipment, or the necessary tools, as well as designing the workflow, overseeing the daily operation of the lab, and training new lab personnel. For the most part, lab management involves certain lab-keeping chores such as maintaining instruments, restocking consumables, scheduling, giving technical advice, and keeping records of certain lab activities or incidences in the lab.
One important aspect of lab management is to ensure that the lab condition and personnel are up to contemporary standards. For example, in a medical or clinical lab, personnel must adhere to ethical standards of conduct in obtaining information, conducting experiments, analyzing data, and the publication thereof. In chemical and biological laboratories, chemical and biological safety regulations require that lab personnel observe and comply with standard procedures for obtaining, handling, storing, and disposing of chemical or biological materials. Lab management supports the implementation of such regulations. Good lab management can accustom lab members to these rules to the extent that they voluntarily adopt these measures and perceive them as a commonplace of life in the lab.
What Do Lab Managers Do and What Are Their Responsibilities?
Lab manager positions can come in many forms. In some establishments, a lab manager may be termed Head of Science or laboratory operation coordinator. This is because a lab manager’s tasks can be strategic, tactical, or operational, depending on the size and the nature of the lab-affiliated organization. In academia, for example, a principal investigator may handle the strategic aspect of lab management, while a senior technician or postdoctoral researcher oversees the tactical and operational tasks. In a larger industrial lab, however, strategic, tactical, and operational duties can be split between two or more staff who interact with lab personnel and report to the organization’s executives.
Lab managers who conduct the strategic duties of lab management are highly experienced. They are responsible for the direction of the lab, and they make certain that the lab operation fits in with the lab visions and missions in the long term. Examples of lab managers’ strategic roles are as follows:
- Setting lab objectives
- Designing long-term plans
- Overseeing lab operations and relevant regulations
- Assigning tasks, monitoring and evaluating staff progress, performance, and customer satisfaction
- Developing and administering the budget
- Reviewing regulatory requirements
Apart from these roles, senior lab managers in some organizations may supervise, give technical advice and contribute to certain executive duties. For instance, senior lab managers may advise on the desired qualifications and technical background in the staff recruitment process and assist in budgeting and procurement plans when drafting funding proposals or business plans.
Tactical and Operational Roles
From a tactical and operational standpoint, lab managers provide an implementation system for the overall strategic plan. They facilitate the day-to-day operation in the lab by setting up schemes and timeframes for each job, including personnel involved in each job, and the extent of involvement. This can be broadly categorized into the following forms:
Internal work processes
Lab managers are responsible for several internal work processes that are crucial for the day-to-day functioning of the lab. Some examples of internal work processes are
- Inventory management
- Shared equipment reservation
- Equipment maintenance
- Resources acquisition and management
- Waste management
- Information management
Much day-to-day work must be performed under certain regulations. In this regard, lab managers must ensure that the lab operations comply with relevant regulations without compromising working hours or work output. To achieve this, lab managers may do one of the following:
- Design workflows
- Set up working areas
In this regard, streamlined workflows are essential, because they allow lab personnel to easily comply with regulating protocols, and they also support the controlling procedure. In particular, a lab manager can decide to set up in a single working area for experiments using a toxic substance, which must be disposed of in a specific manner. In this working area, the substance can be stored, utilized, and discarded, which will ensure that the use and disposal of the substance are contained in a single working area and ease the regulatory surveilling procedure while keeping additional tasks for the purpose of regulatory compliance to a minimum.
Lab managers often take on the duty of mentoring, especially in the form of lab orientation. This is to inform new lab personnel of the rules they must abide by when working in the lab, and make them aware of the associated health risks and how to minimize them.
Apart from active lab duties, lab managers are usually assigned some form of paperwork, especially those involving procurement and regulatory requirements. This varies between laboratories, the topic of study, and lab settings. Paperwork ranges from gathering invoices or proof of purchase to drafting, reviewing, and filing regulatory papers. In the case of regulatory paperwork, oftentimes, lab managers still have to collect data, keep records, and report them as per legal compliance even after the authority has processed and approved them.
Ultimately, the duties of a lab manager are to ensure that staff focuses on their tasks, without having to sacrifice their attention or their time for bureaucratic and/or non-scientific works.
What Skills Should Lab Managers Have?
There are many elements involved in setting up and running a lab, in terms of the long-range plan and the day-to-day operation. A lab manager should possess not only the technical background for the work in the lab, he or she should also have the skills discussed below
These skills are for the lab manager to analyze and evaluate the complexity, technicality, importance, urgency, and frequency of the tasks at hand, and ensure that they are all accomplished on time.
Management skills include planning, prioritizing, decision-making, delegation, and problem-solving. These skills are similar to analytical skills. Lab managers should be able to formulate a plan, determine the importance of each assignment, delay or delegate certain tasks, including appointing the best personnel to handle such tasks.
Another important management skill is an organizational skill. Being organized is critical for lab managers to affect their plans. Organizational skill is particularly practical in achieving certain long-standing mundane tasks with minimal resources. A good case in point is a well-organized and established workflow for equipment maintenance, which lab members can adopt as a part of their routine, to lessen the time lab managers spend in inspecting and maintaining the equipment while getting work done.
Since much of the lab manager’s duties require contact with lab personnel, and many of them call for lab personnel participation, interpersonal skills, or people skills are imperative. It is also useful for lab managers in external interactions with clients, visitors, or suppliers.
These interpersonal skills are:
Lab managers should be able to communicate clearly, whether technical or general, both in writing and verbally. This is particularly important for the training of new lab members or when there is a change of direction, new expectations, or new schemes being put into action.
Lab managers usually have to coordinate between the organization leaders and members of the lab in order to align the workings of the lab with the overall strategic plan. A good lab manager knows how to engage with their lab members, helps them recognize their potential, and motivates them to deal with their shortcomings to achieve their goals.
Negotiation skills can be very useful for strategic, tactical, and operational duties. As an illustration, effective negotiation during budget allocation and procurement can increase the budget and benefits and save the lab spending.
Overall, a lab manager’s analytical, management and interpersonal skills, together with the technical knowledge of the work in the lab will enable the lab personnel to enjoy a friendly work environment that will allow them to reach their full potential.
Tips for Efficient Lab Management
1. Understanding lab terms and techniques
As the name implies, the majority of a lab manager’s duties are in the lab, so interactions with other lab members should be efficient and effective. Most of the time, these lab members are highly skilled scientists or engineers, who are comfortable using specialized technical terms when sending messages about their works. An understanding of their language and the ability to use it will aid communication. An effective communication process will support the lab manager in identifying and troubleshooting any obstacles that need to be overcome, and provide a comprehensive picture of the work—how well it is progressing, and whether strategic or tactical changes must be made to ensure the success of the work.
2. Knowing lab personnel
The success of the lab relies on the success of the lab personnel. Therefore, it is beneficial to know and understand lab personnel—who they are, where they are from, what their aspirations are, and how they work. This knowledge will help the lab manager to place the right lab personnel in the right position. It will also help tailor personnel engagement, and support the decision-making process in a way that is the most effective for lab productivity.
3. Choosing the right tool and using it
A lab manager’s duties are mostly recurring mundane tasks such as income and expenditure revision, restocking supplies, preparing for regulatory inspection, or renewing regulatory permits. Most of these tasks can be taken care of in less time if the right tools are used. For example, there are reliable income and expenditure tracking software available, which could also provide an insight into the lab budgeting. In the case of restocking supplies, a barcoding system can be implemented, in which every item taken out of the inventory is tracked and recorded using its barcode. This will save the time that a lab manager spends on making a regular supply check and can provide insights into the lab inventory.
4. Staying up-to-date and acquiring new skills
As science and technology evolve, lab activities are also affected. Staying up-to-date on the latest developments in the field will foster growth, in terms of the scope of the lab work and personnel competency. A lab manager, in particular, generally possesses a technical background but also requires non-technical skills to fill the role. Investing in related training sessions such that relevant new skills can be acquired can be beneficial to the lab in the long run.
Conclusively, a lab manager is similar to a business manager. A lab manager is responsible for all aspects, from setting up a lab, to setting sights on the lab’s direction and keeping it running. It requires technical knowledge, analytical, organizational, and most importantly, people skills. Understanding lab technicality, as well as its people, is key to becoming an efficient lab manager. Successful lab managers also know when they need help to accomplish their tasks, and they are always open to new ideas and learning new things.