Now that the COVID-19 epidemic has forced authorities around Earth to act, many of us are waking up to the new normal of having to manage experimental research communities from afar for extended periods of time. Most lab PIs travel so much that lab management seems remote anyways. But when only essential personnel are allowed in the lab, how do you keep people engaged without skipping a beat? In this post we’ll cover how we keep the HYPER lab’s ~35 members working together regularly, and how this allows us to transition quickly to remote work with even a very hands-on experimental hydrogen cryogenics laboratory. We accomplish this through four key systems that we’ll go through in this post:
- Clear Mission and Guiding Principles — covered by “Professional Practice: A Compendium for the HYPER Community”,
- Remote Collaboration Tools — WordPress (this blog), Microsoft Teams, and Zoom,
- Agile/Lean work-flow structure — so easy a 1st grader can do it, and
- Rigorous safety plans with full HAZOP.
If you don’t have these systems setup, not to worry, you’ve suddenly got plenty of time to get them setup, and with this guide you won’t have to repeat all of the ways we’ve learned not to do this.
1. Clear Mission and Guiding Principles
If your Mission and Guiding Principles don’t simply explain what you should do now, then you should change them.
Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, “The Culture Code” is one of the Top Shelf reads in the HYPER community for a very good reason. The book carefully lays out how to build and maintain thriving communities. Community is the first thing to go in a pandemic, hence how difficult and valuable community is to sustain. Once leaders establish a safe environment free from authoritarian abuse, and acknowledge their limitations (everyone in HYPER immediately acknowledges my limitations), the next important element of community is a clear mission and guiding principles.
Although the HYPER community’s mission (to efficiently advance the technology readiness level of cryogenic and/or hydrogen systems for the betterment of humanity) is prominent on the homepage of this site and directly aligned with WSU’s LandGrant Mission, as the lab continued to grow into a community through the years it became clear that people were losing site of how to act on it. The breaking point occurred during one of our weekly community meetings when the question came up, “Do we advance the lab’s publications or do what’s best to develop the people in the lab as professionals?” While the answer is both, it was realized by all that we most efficiently fulfill our community’s mission, and publications, by fiercely developing the professional practices of all HYPER community members. Professionalism transcends workplace and topic.
From this realization, “Professional Practice: A Compendium for the HYPER Community” was created to 1. Onboard, 2. Train, and 3. Transition HYPER members through our community. The Compendium guides everyone through all of the onboarding paperwork that makes clear, via a Memorandum of Understanding, our community’s commitment to Professional Practice. The Compendium is curated by the Core Team in the community and a draft is released for each semester at the start of the semester. The Core Team then works to continuously improve the document for next semester’s release.
A key feature of the Compendium is the reliance on memes to reinforce key community mantras and values that promote professional practice. A subset of these is below.
This last one is most significant. Once you learn how to do something you’re expected to do it yourself, then teach it to others. This teaching progression usually involves extensive documentation for others to follow — something that can be done from home. Hence the training portion of the compendium where we’ve structured a mastery-based system for core lab capabilities.
At the very least, the Compendium is a place where people can send a message to their future peers, one they can work on from home.
2. Remote Collaboration Tools
You’re reading this through one of those remote collaboration tools. Everything that we do that can help the broader WSU or our research communities (that is not a journal of conference paper) goes here on this WordPress site. But WordPress is not where most of our work happens.
In January WSU enabled Microsoft Teams as part of our Office 365 subscription. MS Teams is a combination of direct messaging, threaded discussion channels, and aggregation of MS Office files within each of those channels or messages. Here’s a snapshot of our current MS Teams channel list:
Notice in the navigation tree that each project/experiment has a channel, along with the core lab theme channels. This allows for anyone to quickly post something of relevance to a Team’s channel, or things of general interest to the lab. At the top drop-down menu is a files tab — we can permanently pin key files here, such as a safety plan for a project/team. All of the files for that team or project are automatically stored in the cloud in a corresponding folder and anyone can collaboratively edit.
Near the bottom of the far left banner is another key feature. WSU integrated Zoom into our MS Teams setup. This allows us to quickly setup a zoom video meeting with anyone in the lab. Kindof slick and timely for a pandemic scenario. But you get the point, the HYPER community uses these tools because people naturally want to contribute, and when they have an idea to contribute it’s critical to minimize the difficulty for posting that contribution, regardless of here or afar. So we didn’t skip a beat when we moved to remote.
Finally, all of our core equipment computers have the ability to setup remote desktop so that the equipment can be monitored in case access to a room is shut off. The key word in that sentence is ‘monitored’, I don’t want remote control on any of the systems to minimize risks of nefarious hacking. WSU allowing essential personnel into the spaces was essential to us keeping things progressing.
3. Agile/Lean Workflow Structure
You saw in the above MS Teams image my last message for the group on Professional Practice was a step by step reminder of how our Agile workflow system works from home:
2) REVISE: your group lead will respond with feedback, revise, make sure you’re both ok with the proposed workplan. Make sure you have a couple of easy, medium, and hard tasks for each week.
3) COMMIT: message your plan to Mark (Lab manager) and I for approval. Make sure to have easy, medium, and hard tasks each week.
4) SPRINT: set a timer for a work time block ~1.5 hrs, have your goal for that time block written down with a plan for completion. Then SPRINT to get as much work done in that block as you can. Remember to close the time block with the take aways for how to improve for the next time block, log your hours, and communicate progress to others.
5) REVIEW: we will still meet during our usual times to give everyone updates, just remotely with Zoom. I’ll start getting the meeting invites converted over and sent out later today. You will need to: A) state where you were last time, B) what you accomplished, and C) what you plan to have done next time (new backlog).
Notice that the sixth S is for Safety. And yes, these Lean error-proofing processes can be successfully drafted from home.
4. Rigorous Safety Plans with Full HAZOPs
WSU chose to close campus to only “essential personnel” and to have backup personnel in place for any key equipment/processes. We identified an essential personnel for each lab area so to preserve social distancing. It was easy for us because we have full Safety Plans (some over 100 pages in length) for each of our experiments. These plans are continuously updated and aggregated on the team’s experiment channel so that any lab members can access in MS Teams. We had to do this anyways because the Department of Energy requires these plans to be reviewed by a Hydrogen Safety Panel. Message me if you’d like to see an example: jacob.leachman< at >wsu.edu. These safety plans cover basically any aspect of operation with step by step instructions. They also include just about all of the most likely potential deviations that could happen to the experiment through a HAZOP process. Here’s the basics of a HAZOP:
- Create a block flow system diagram of all of the key ‘nodes’ for the system,
- Apply the list of ‘guide words’ that cover all of the potential deviations that could occur on that node: e.g. low pressure, rupture, high concentration, etc.
- In an extensive table write the causes, mitigation strategies, and corrective actions for each of the deviations.
Last but not least — the BIG RED BUTTON. Every experiment is setup such that someone can press a BIG RED BUTTON and just walk away. Everything will safe itself.
Doing this right requires an extensive Plumbing and Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID). Often this can be as much work and effort as a thesis or dissertation itself. More great practice that can be done from home.
So working remotely wasn’t so remote after all?
Working remotely IS different. And the cognitive load of a pandemic where you have to help sick family members, or you become sick yourself, is a drain. But when you fiercely work to continuously improve community systems during the good times, you end up with workable processes wherever you are, when you need them most.
I’ve gotten many calls and texts from people assuming that I’d be a wreck this week. So far we’re weathering the storm. It’s when we have to work with others (contracts, hiring, shipments, etc) that will end up holding us back.