Don’t take a knife to a gunfight

I’ve seen a few staggering blizzards in my Michigan days, but the Great Blizzard of 1978 was an epic storm. On January 26th, the barometric pressure in my corner of Michigan dropped to 28.28, the lowest sea level pressure ever recorded in the U.S. that didn’t involve a hurricane.

The view from the front porch was intimidating.

Before crossing Lake Michigan to hit Kalamazoo, the storm deposited a suffocating 40 inches of snow on Wisconsin.

When all was said and done, snow drifts touched the eves of my parent’s house, and the darkness inside an eerie cave-like motif from the inside. More surreal was the sight of people walking down the street on top of a 10-foot-thick sheet of snow, jabbing poles into the drifts every few yards to try to locate their cars.

The storm that hit Denver around Christmas didn’t approach Michigan standards, but was a blast to reckon with. The drive home from a ski trip to Copper Mountain was deceptively easy as the storm didn’t hit I-70 out west by the ski resorts with anything remotely close to the white doom that enveloped the city. As we arrived at our subdivision, I fought to keep the SUV in two narrow tracks to the top of the cul-de-sac where we live. Taking a shot at driving the third of a mile to our house was not in the cards with three feet of snow on the road. So, after a hip deep slog to the house, I grabbed a couple of the kid’s sleds and, with golden retriever Chester safely ensconced at the kennel, my wife Erin and I morphed into sled dogs to get our ski luggage home.

I was in a dark mood as I shoveled the driveway from the garage out. After three hours, I’d made about a three foot semicircle in the snow, and retreated for a beer. Then I heard it, the familiar low belch of heavy equipment. To me, it was the song of an angel, so I hopped down the driveway, carefully placing my feet in previous footstep craters in the snow. I guessed the giant yellow behemoth to be a Caterpillar 992G Wheel Loader, probably packing an 800 HP diesel. Assuming the driver to be from the county DOT, I figured I was a couple of twenties away from seeing some fast and definitive relief from my thankless, vertebrae-cracking labor. I saw my neighbor two houses down eyeballing the beast, and figured he was entertaining similar thoughts. Although he was the former center for the Broncos for John Elway, I assumed his bulk might slow him down in the race to the Loader. I didn’t want to have to fight him for the first right of refusal, as the brawl would be a long, drawn out affair that would require me to pack a lunch.

As I approached the driver, Andrew Jacksons in hand, he suddenly veered up my next door neighbor’s long, steep driveway. ‘What the hell?’ I wondered. Why would a county roads guy ignore the street and focus on a driveway?

He took a few buckets of snow and tossed them aside mightily. I watched him as he emptied the driveway in short order, and with my NFL neighbor no longer in sight, I made my move.

“Hey there,” I cheerfully greeted him, “are you a contractor?”

“Me? No, I’m the son-in-law.”

He went on to explain how he worked with heavy rigs on a nearby highway project, and drove the yellow beast over to keep peace with his mother-in-law.

“Can I borrow it for a few minutes?”

He eyed me nervously.

“Ah, do you have experience with these?”

“Why of course!” That wasn’t a total stretch. During college, my summer job at a huge paper company allowed me to become a jack of all trades. I mostly drove a forklift with an extension reach, but any piece of large equipment was fair game for the expendable summer help. The rigorous training I had on a loader was 10 minutes with a cigar-chomping guy, and then I was turned loose in the yard.

I handed my beer to the bewildered driver at the end of my driveway and climbed aboard.

“Have you been drinking?” I sensed his concern.

“No, just a little sip to alleviate dehydration. Not to worry.”

With that, I climbed aboard and quickly scanned the controls. In the 30 intervening years since I last sat in one, the basic operation hadn’t changed, save a digital keypad that sat by my right hand. Assuming this may have just been an ignition interlock and, as it was already running, I pivoted the beast towards my driveway before my newfound friend could protest. Within seconds, I clipped the Christmas lights on a tree next to the driveway, and lowering the bucket, I proceeded to dislodge a 400-pound boulder off to my right, shattering the top of it in one simple motion. Glancing over, I saw the driver cautiously approaching me, but my two early mishaps discouraged him from getting too close.

Each bucket lifted represented probably 30 minutes of shoveling, and after tossing a few tons near my neighbor’s driveway (he should have treated me better), I had only minor hand-shoveling to finish.

I backed down the driveway a last time, hopped out, and retrieved my beer from my new best friend. As I walked up my driveway, the dislocated boulder stared back at me, next to a deep crater that I would somehow have to knock it back into. Knowing that I wouldn’t likely be able to put my hands on this, or any other loader, very easily, I deferred that issue to the next warm spell.

Using the right tools for the job is something that few companies do correctly. What are tools in the informatics industry? Software, consultative help, esoteric hardware, instrumentation, and so on.

Every consultant and vendor has walked into sites requiring an informatics upgrade to see a hodgepodge of MS Excel spreadsheets (often claimed to be “validated” for regulated labs), home brew Microsoft Access “LIMS,” and an avalanche of MS Word documents that describe everything from laboratory SOPs to “templates” for laboratory data entry. It is extremely common to be called into a laboratory operation to solve one problem, and to uncover many other more sinister issues that weren’t even on the radar screen.

I have searched and searched for the origin of a favorite quote of mine, to no avail, so let’s call it “anonymous” for now: “A company is most profitable just before it goes out of business.”

The fact remains that many companies are successful in spite of their bad behaviors, not because of them. If, in the above example, a company has gotten along for years on home brew software and chicken wire and spit systems integration, and still makes money, then why change?

Several years ago, we worked with a growing pharmaceutical company whereby we redesigned their entire workflow across many sites. I remember this well because it is where I was encamped when 9/11 came down, and “forgot” to turn in my rental car and proceeded to drive 800 miles home to Florida. Well, vendors were selected for chromatography and LIMS at this customer site, and then the project hit the La Brea Tar Pits of indecision. To this day, this burgeoning pharmaceutical company has never implemented LIMS, and continues to grow, despite what has to be a crippling amount of manual data entry, hand checking calculations, and the consumption of an astounding amount of paper each day. I recently heard from the vendor who was selected in this account over five years ago that there are some rumblings to reinvigorate the project, but nothing seems to happen. Why? Beats me, but you can be sure that aversion to risk at some management level is at least an element of this paralysis.

Here’s a quote from me: “Show me a mission-critical project that has stopped dead, and I’ll show you a manager whose metrics do not include assuming the risk of major change.”

Better stated: “Never underestimate the power of bureaucracy to turn a ‘no-brainer’ into ‘not-my-job’ project euthanasia.”

So, you can use all the wrong tools for a job, and continue to function, that is indisputable. But, like the guy who tells me that his grandmother lived to be 102 and smoked a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day, my response is always: “Yeah, but had she quit smoking in her 70s, maybe she could’ve stretched it to 109.”

Wait! I see through my office window that a landscaping service is doing some work for another neighbor, and they have a Bobcat. Where are my twenties? I have a boulder to move.

Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He may be reached at