Ranger Training in the Laboratory: Capturing the Knowledge of Experiences

Written By: Calvin Ball, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM, CLS

Knowledge Management

The identification and collection of internal knowledge (core competencies) and best practices, to understand and share lessons learned, and to adapt and use such knowledge in new situations.



I was recently talking to a medical laboratory scientist (MLS) that has worked in the laboratory for decades and is about to retire in a few years. We were chatting about his experience and the volume of knowledge he has acquired over the years. I was amazed at his depth of understanding about, well, almost every test in the lab. I asked him what was his secret and he replied that after MLS school, he went to work in a rural laboratory. He described it as being thrown into a lab with mediocre equipment. A senior tech at the time suddenly decided to retire so he basically had to work by himself after only 6 weeks of training, which did not include phlebotomy. He had to draw specimens and test them. He had to quickly learn what worked and how to adapt to different scenarios. It was sink or swim, and he swam. He put it like this, “I had to learn to think logically. There was no one to call or ask for help, and I hated the feeling of wondering if I made a mistake after I went home.” I’ve met many senior laboratorians with similar stories, but he then said something that I’ll never forget, “It was ranger training in the laboratory.” Now, this seasoned MLS would know something of ranger training because his son is currently going through the second phase of U.S. Army Ranger training right now and gives his dad a play-by-play of what he is going through when they regularly talk.

At first, I was a little unsure of how being thrown into the fire as a new laboratorian is comparable to U.S. Army Ranger training, however, as the MLS started going into detail about his experience and also glowingly and proudly talking about his son, I realized that there are some similarities between the two experiences. The U.S. Army Ranger School puts their candidates through physically and mentally demanding exercises to see if they have what it takes to wear the tan beret. Every candidate believes they have the right stuff, but few do. Something breaks, be it a bum knee or exhaustion and hunger. Those that don’t make it, sink. Those that do, swim and their experience molds them into a member of one of the most elite fighting forces.

When you compare that experience to that of a Lab Ranger, the inexperience becomes part of the experience and those that persevere come out for the better. They become the elite of the laboratory because they had to learn quickly on their feet and develop a routine to ensure that they apply their knowledge to identify abnormalities and how to address them. Those laboratorians that were thrown into some pretty hairy situations in their careers and survived were molded into better, more experienced laboratorians. They have learned the tips and tricks that make them the best at what they do.

Now, I am no expert on U.S. Army Ranger training, but I do know how the military works. The U.S. military is an all-volunteer force. That means that you volunteer for a certain number of years and at the end of that commitment you can decide to get out, re-up for another period of time, or commit to making it your career. Because of the constant rotation of personnel, the U.S. military is excellent at Knowledge Management. They document everything so the next person in line doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Can you imagine every time senior rangers decide to retire or not re-up, the new generation of rangers having to start from scratch? They are elite for a reason and that is due to the caliber of the soldier that was forged by their experiences and the passing down of the wisdom and knowledge of those who came before them.

When I hear stories similar to this one, I immediately think about Knowledge Management. With an ever-aging population of laboratorians, there is a wealth of knowledge of best practices in the laboratory currently working alongside many of us. Sometimes, the up and coming generation of laboratorians are fortunate enough to receive that knowledge. However, it would best serve the laboratory community if there was a concerted effort to document and safeguard the knowledge and wisdom of these lab rangers. This can be accomplished by the inclusion of these individuals in reviewing and revising procedures, and being actively involved in process improvement throughout the laboratory. These lab rangers can provide immeasurable input to streamline procedures and can easily identify the waste (failure modes) in processes.

One of my own personal stories of managing the knowledge of a lab ranger took place while I was supervising phlebotomist. There was a senior phlebotomist that was really close to retirement. For some reason at the beginning of our working relationship, they would resist me at every turn and give me attitude. One day, I walked up to them and stated, “I know you have been in the lab a long time and you have a lot of experience in how the lab works. I really appreciate and respect your experiences and I truly believe you would be a great help in updating and improving processes.” From that moment forward, they were very helpful in organizing and improving the department. That phlebotomist was a valuable resource who shared their experiences when they were molded by times they had to sink or swim.

Is your laboratory utilizing Laboratory Rangers to their fullest or do you even know who are the ones who have been forged by fire? These individuals are a valuable resource that need to be acknowledged for their experiences and can lead the way for the next generation of laboratorians. One day we will walk into the laboratory and these rangers will decide not to re-up and that wealth of knowledge and experience will be gone forever.

This is a personal blog and any opinions expressed here are my own. Even though many concepts, methods, and/or ideas are described in this blog, please perform your own research to gain a better understanding if you plan on applying it to your organization. If you need help, please feel free to contact me. This blog is copyrighted, but please feel free to link to the original post and give me credit. Any and all thoughts contained in this blog are my own and do not reflect on my current employer.

Feature photo by Shutterstock.com.