Measuring Your Worth

There’s more to calibration technicians than meets the eye

by Jay L. Bucher

During a recent National Conference of Standards Laboratories International (NCSLI) section meeting in Madison, WI, I asked one of the attendees what he did. His response was that he was a "cal tech"—a calibration technician—and he looked a bit sheepish about being forced to say that.

I’ve run across this type of situation before in which a calibration technician might feel he or she is not as important as others in the organization. Nothing could be further from the truth. In those cases, I usually inform them they are not only incorrect in that assumption, but also greatly misrepresenting themselves within their department, organization and industry.

Nobody is just a calibration technician. I’ve used myself as an example, informing the sheepish individual that I’ve helped catch killers and rapists, proved the innocence of previously convicted inmates and got them released from prison, and been at the forefront of finding the cure for cancer.

I explained how I managed a best-in-class metrology department for a leading biotechnology organization that was at the cutting edge of producing a broad array of applications, including basic research, drug discovery, forensics and paternity testing, and hospital and clinic-based diagnostics. Their genetic identity kits were used at crime scenes and in forensic labs to catch bad guys, while helping to ensure the innocent were found innocent.

Our speakers during that same NCSLI section meeting also were "just" calibration technicians at some point in their careers but also could add statistician, group leader, college professor and doctor to their titles.

After I pointed this out, the way in which these previously timid individuals presented themselves, networked with their peers and shared their knowledge with the people attending the meeting demonstrated they were looking at being "just" a calibration technician in a whole new way.

All about attitude

There can be no doubt that people’s attitudes toward their jobs, supervisors and organizations are a driving factor in determining their willingness to stay in that position. Basically, if they’re happy and fulfilled, they will stay put. If they aren’t happy, they will start searching for a position at another organization.

Part of being satisfied with your job is feeling that you’re making a difference and that what you do every day is important. Ensuring staff members are trained and aware of their importance falls squarely on the shoulders of supervision and management. Unfortunately, there is a wide spectrum of calibration technicians plying their trade all over the world who never look beyond their work bench or calibration system.

They are never told how important their jobs are, how manufacturing and R&D would not be able to produce a single item without their support and dedication, or what the cost in lives would be if they did not do their job with the precision and accuracy required by standards and regulations concerning traceable calibration of test equipment.

The importance of having calibration of test equipment traceable to national and international standards while incorporating uncertainty budgets using calibration procedures and maintaining their calibration records can’t be overemphasized.

If quality calibration programs didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have a space program, flight safety, automotive industry, safe and effective drugs and pharmaceuticals, medical devices, nanotechnology, recreation sports or equipment, telecommunications, nuclear power, computers, printers or the internet. And that’s only the tip of a very large iceberg.

Staying motivated

Part of my job as the manager of a metrology department at a biotech company was to ensure every piece of test equipment received the same due diligence as the next piece to be calibrated. I understand how boring and mundane it can be to calibrate dozens of pipettes every day with no end in sight because they need recurring calibration on a scheduled basis.

So how did I keep staff members motivated—not only for dealing with pipettes, but also the calibration of water baths, thermal cyclers, balances and scales, pressure gages, thermometers and spectrophotometers?

Naturally, we train staff to mix and match its workload to alleviate as much boredom as possible, but it takes a special person to understand the criticality of these items in the big picture of production and manufacturing in a large company.

The simplest way to get my point across was to remind staff members that the products produced by the organization did, indeed, help catch killers and rapists, and a lot of the tubes filled with its enzymes and reagents went to research institutions searching for the cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and a host of other terrible diseases.

If staff members could identify the one pipette that would be used to produce the particular product that would cure every one of these diseases, they would have the answer to a lot of the world’s problems. But because they could not make that call, they needed to focus on each and every calibration, every day, all year long until we no longer required calibrated test equipment.

Does every calibration technician, scheduler, purchasing agent or supervisor in the chain of calibrated test equipment at your organization understand the importance of doing his or her job right each and every time? Do they understand the impact if they don’t?

Education matters

Basically, it comes down to training—training the new technicians; annual training to stay updated on the latest information, standards, procedures and improvements in the industry; and training on why it’s so critical to understand the impact of not using calibrated test equipment.

Attitude can be infectious in your department and organization. And it can go both ways when it comes to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it for the greater good of humankind, or just because a standard or regulation dictates it needs to be done that way?

Naturally, anyone can put a certain spin on the whys, but usually the truth is the best weapon against the naysayers. Personal experience has shown me that a lot of people will think negatively about your quality calibration program while they mistakenly believe that calibrating their test equipment adversely affects their ability to produce, research or accomplish their jobs. That’s why educating and training your organization’s internal customers is as important as doing so with your calibration staff.

Everyone should be in a mode of continuous process improvement during the normal course of a workday. You need to ask yourself a few questions: How can you improve a process or procedure? Is there an easier, faster and more efficient way to perform a particular task or job? Can money, time, materials or all three be saved or made to stretch farther by making a simple improvement?

Have you trained your staff members to approach problem solving with a positive attitude so they keep an open mind when it comes to making process improvements, or are they locked into the status quo?

Get involved

One way to help improve their attitude, as well as their knowledge and education, is to not only attend conferences, seminars and training programs, but also have them speak, present and help develop those very same events.

To make a presentation, write a paper or develop a session during any event, you need to develop a thought or idea before putting it down on paper. Being able to pull the information together, do the research or develop a new idea can only enhance your self-image, as well as that of your department and organization.

For the individuals I have encouraged to write a paper or make a presentation, it was difficult at the beginning. Any time a person goes where they have never considered going before, there is always a slight amount of fear and trepidation. That’s human nature.

But as each of them progressed down that long and winding road to writing the paper or making the presentation, I could see the improvement in their attitude about the topic, the knowledge they gained on the subject and the resulting confidence. As a result, the next paper or presentation was much easier to research, write, develop and present.

Confidence in yourself, a positive attitude about your ability to accomplish any task and the willingness to be more than "just" another calibration technician can have a lasting impact on not only your job performance, department goals and career opportunities, but also the public image of every calibration technician.

Jay L. Bucher is president of Bucherview Metrology Services LLC in De Forest, WI. He is the editor and coauthor of The Metrology Handbook, second edition, and seven other books, including A Calibration Training Program for the 21st Century. Bucher is a senior member of ASQ, the secretary of the Measurement Quality Division and a certified calibration technician.

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