Sunday, February 7, 2016

SOPs for every day life

The other day I was grilling chicken and burgers for dinner while simultaneously rushing around cleaning the house and feeding the baby her late-afternoon meal.  Bless her little heart, she tends to have her hangry (hungry-angry) meltdowns at exactly the least convenient times.  All of this combined led to a somewhat frenetic session with the grill, compounding my already serious distaste for touching raw meat.  As much as I love cooking, I have never acclimated to prepping and touching raw meats; my health-conscious self doesn't allow for me to leave the skin on the chicken, which then necessitates additional handling to remove the said skin (btw, kitchen scissors are incredibly useful for this purpose!).  Already hyperaware of the contaminants that live on raw meat, I'm even more paranoid now because i regularly have to check in with the baby while in the middle of a cooking.

In the midst of this chaos, I found myself keenly aware of which hand had touched the raw meat and which had not.  Designating "clean" and "dirty" hands made it simpler to get in and out of the house to the grill without worrying about collateral raw chicken damage on the doorknobs or countertops.  Without even thinking, I had reverted to one of the most basic and fundamental SOPs from my grad school training.

SOPs, or standard operating procedures, are the basis of any well-functioning lab or workspace.  They ensure that every member of the team follows the same maintenance steps, experimental design methods, and lab hygiene norms.  Without strong clearly-defined SOPs small details can be lost, and mistakes that seem innocuous can ruin someone's day (or month).  Diagnosing a problem can also be made much simpler, going back through the SOP and identifying the deviations from procedure.  The focus on having unambiguous and thoughtful SOP reflects the mindful engineering described in a previous post.   The more rigorous and careful the procedures, the more intuitive the basic operation becomes, allowing the user to be more aware of deviations from the norm.  It is both a method for habituating to good practices as well as a way to stay acutely cognizant of the noise.

While a graduate student, I probably trained 8-10 new students in lab procedures.  The first SOP that every grad student learned was, at face value, stupidly easy, but also ended being somewhat of a litmus test for their ability to pick up and maintain procedures.  The basic premise was learning how to put on and maintain "clean" gloves.  Sounds easy, right?  In many respects it is a simple procedure, but it is absolutely crucial for the type of work we did.  In molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) research, the quality of work depends heavily on the purity of the vacuum (or ultra-high vacuum) achievable in the machine.  Ideally in the 1E-12 - 1E-14 Torr range, even marginal amounts of water vapor contamination can ruin your experiment.  (Unless of course you are running an oxide MBE system, but I digress).  So you can imagine how critical it is to keep contaminants from reaching the inside of the system.  Hence the procedure for clean gloves.  Every student had to learn to distinguish "clean" and "dirty" gloves, even though "dirty" in this case doesn't mean actual dirt.  The procedure was two-fold:

1) Learning to put on a "clean" nitrile glove over the "dirty" base-layer glove without touching any part of the "clean" glove (other than the cuff).

And (even more importantly):

2) Keeping the "clean" glove clean.

The latter requires a good amount of spatial awareness and unconscious focus.  Mindfulness was critical, and I spent many hours demonstrating how to complete procedures that depended at their core on the immaculate condition of the gloves performing the steps.  Without this basic SOP, none of the following SOPs would matter.  It's mindful engineering that helps keep something as simple as having on clean gloves above the noise of all the other complex steps.  Simple, but critical. Mindless but for applied mindfulness.


By the way, I did manage to get everything done in time and the chicken turned out fantastic.

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