What McDonald’s Taught me about Running a Lab

Sep 24, 2009

A couple of years ago, I read the book, The E-Myth Revisited What McDonalds Taught me about Running a Lab and have felt that certain aspects of small business could be applied to a crystallography lab. The ideas in this book could be applied in a variety of settings, but this post will focus on a professor in academics.
mcdonalds billions What McDonalds Taught me about Running a Lab
The vision of McDonald’s and your lab maybe different. Well, maybe not, if that cure for malaria ever pans out, you too can add “Billions Served” and your office door.

What is the vision of your lab?
What do you want your lab to accomplish?
Think about it. Be succinct.

What do you need to do to achieve it?

All too often, the clear focus (the project that landed you the position) becomes muddled. In an effort to combat the “I need a paper/funding to get tenure,” you end up trying to do everything yourself. This feeling is justified in that you have the technical abilities to run every aspect of your lab and as the saying goes, “if you want it done right then do it yourself.”

The reason you have an academic position is largely due to your technical skills: purifying protein, running gels, data processing, publishing papers and presenting research.

However, now you have more responsibility than ever before and doing everything becomes overwhelming.

Maintain all your instruments, order all your supplies, purify all your protein, set up all those crystallization experiments, be on department committees, prepare for and teach classes, stay current on literature, review and write papers and of course write grants. You don’t scale. There are 24 hours in a day and if you want a life (ie. family, vacation, volunteer, hobby, etc.) you are going to need help from others.

Lucky, there are two groups to sell your vision too, graduate students and post docs.

So you teach them all the skills that you know and after a couple of years, the older students pass it on to the new students. If you can afford a post-doc then they too can answer questions that would otherwise come to you.

It works, but not well.

The technical skills will only take you so far, two additional components should be added: managing the system and a vision for the future.

The reason that it does not work well is it is like playing the telephone game. Instead a system should be put in place that helps to serve the vision of the lab. Research is largely about doing something novel, but many aspects are repeated over and over again, which led themselves to becoming a system.

For example, the operation of a HPLC can be largely systematized: what column should you use? what is the maximum pressure that the column can withstand? how do you clean the HPLC? what solutions are needed for each column? how to connect the column? what is the appropriate flow rate? what to do if air bubbles get on the column? who gets to use the column when? etc…

If a system were in place that addressed these questions then all of sudden, you have time to focus on your vision of the lab.

What is the role of each person in your lab/system? Here is one possibility:

New students (1-2 years of grad school)
Technical skills:
Basic lab protocol (PPE, cleaning)
Able to understand manuals and protocols
Where everything is
How to make solutions
How to operate equipment (centrifuge, HPLC, set up crystallization trays, etc.)

Limited by how much work he or she can do

Older Students (3-12 years of grad school)
Manager skills:
Schedule equipment usage (such as HPLC, autoclaving tips or incubators)
Learn interpretation of results
Assign tasks such as areas to be cleaned
Orders supplies
Update technical manuals (very detailed, every aspect that you can think of including trouble shooting)

Post Doc
Manager skills:
Learn new techniques, protocols, software and instrumentation
Assist in initial writing of papers and grants
Help review papers
Write papers, new technical and proof read manuals

Limited by how many people they are able to manage

Visionary skills:
Final editing of papers
Write grants
Hire post docs – bring in graduate students
Departmental obligations
Committees and meetings
How do you develop a better system?
What is the vision of the future?
Where are the opportunities? (collaborations, funding)

Limited by how many people they are able to buy into their vision

This is just an example, if your vision includes you working in the lab because that is your passion then do it!

McDonald’s (Walmart, Starbucks, etc.) have developed a system that scales. I don’t believe that a crystallography lab can be run as hands off as McDonald’s, but I do believe there is room for improvement.

What do you think? How do you feel about the organization of your lab? Could it be improved?

Posted by Sean | Categories: Uncategorized | Tagged: , |

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3 Awesome Insights so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Mary Canady
    September 25th, 2009 at 9:42 AM #

    Nice post Sean. One thing I’ve seen is the ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ mentality, for example making scientists pour gels instead of purchasing them. If PIs would consider that they could be much more impactful by having their highly trained scientists to do science rather than grunt work, I think everyone would benefit. The analogy here is that McDonald’s surely doesn’t bake its hamburger buns…

    Interestingly, the founder of Hampton Research, Bob Cudney, was told by his boss (can you guess who?) ‘nobody’s going to buy pre-made crystallization kits.’ We all know how that ended.


  2. Rich Apodaca
    September 25th, 2009 at 12:39 PM #

    Great analogy, Sean. Automation and information managment also have a role to play. Walmart (nor many other of today’s iconic companies) could have gotten very far without them.

    I’ve seen a number of mind-boggling cases of grunt work that could be better done by machines being done by highly-trained people for lack of some basic tools.

  3. Sean
    September 26th, 2009 at 5:18 PM #

    @Mary – Great point about pouring vs. purchasing trays. I could find out Bob Cudney’s old boss :) , but just based off of publications will go with Alexander McPherson.

    @Rich – Totally agree that automation and info management play a role. The key part is what systems do you put in place so that automation occurs especially concerning employees.

    If you are able to develop great systems then you are increasing your potential employee pool.

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