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Humming to the Beatles' Song, “In My Life”

Tears were threatening to flow out of my eyes as Shambel, the Ethiopia lab’s maintenance head, said to me, “This is not America.  This is Africa…we do things at our own time.”  We were in his office discussing project support for installing utilities to the new freeze dryer donated through the VACNADA project.  I was trying to impress upon him the importance of making and meeting commitments to task target due dates.  Shambel’s response was typical of his recent responses when asked about scheduling maintenance work in general.  Shambel had a lot on his plate as a new comer to the maintenance head position.   There was no point in continuing to badger him so I said goodbye and headed early to my next appointment.

I left Shambel’s office feeling dejected because I felt that I had failed at accomplishing one of my fellowship objectives: to improve the maintenance group.  The group still needed a lot of help.  They were running on crisis mode more often than not.  The unplanned work seemed to overtake the planned maintenance tasks.  Shambel and the group tried, but were still struggling with taking control of their daily activities with the simple electronic scheduling tool that I had provided and trained them how to use 3 months ago.  The work requestors were not using the work order form that I had helped to streamline so their work is still mostly going undocumented. The improved equipment preventative maintenance plans were rejected by some of the technicians who want to do preventative maintenance the way they had always done from memory.  The only improvement I’ve made that seemed to be working was the filing system for the equipment maintenance manuals.  This was all I have to show for my efforts.  I was sad to leave with this conclusion.  I don’t know how else to help them in the short time I have remaining.  I made a mental note to consult Jim Dezieck, another Round 14 fellow, who is an expert in organizational behavior, to help me understand this group’s organizational struggles and teach me better coping strategies.  

Going back to the installation request: where did I go wrong?  I did all the things that I normally do at my Pfizer plant when coordinating new installations:  I gave the maintenance staff ample look ahead to the utilities routing work (3 months time and in the form of a clearly written work order), I provided vendor installation literature, I physically walked down the job with Shambel and the technician who would be executing the work (3 weeks in advance), I arranged for procuring the necessary installation materials based on the technician’s recommendations, I projected the completion time based on the technician’s announced estimate that he would finish in one week after receiving materials, and I reiterated the importance of hitting the target finish date in our weekly project meetings which Shambel attends.  He understood clearly for weeks that the equipment supplier’s engineer will arrive on the specified date to commission the system and that the consequence of not being installation complete will be a loss of learning time with the supplier’s engineer.  I’ve given him opportunities in the meetings to bring up any questions or concerns.  He did not tell me that his technician was not doing the work until 3 days before the target due date and only when I was forced to ask via his manager.  Was he trying to avoid disappointing me by letting me think that everything will be fixed?  Ethiopians are polite and don’t like to say no, but the reality for me was it was too late to reschedule the engineer’s visit. 

I was deep in thought about the installation fiasco when I heard someone call my name.  Getnet, the marketing director, was smiling and waving a small card at me.  He proudly offered me his new business card.  We had shared a van ride several times from work back to Addis where we both lived.  The previous week, we chatted about marketing strategies and I had suggested that he have business cards to better help him with networking and promoting his role in the organization.  I gave him one of my Pfizer cards as an example.  He remembered and followed through with making some simple business cards.  I was very pleased to accept his card.

Solomone, a technician in the biochemistry lab, greeted me when I arrived at my next appointment with him to review laboratory safety.  He had struggled for months with finding time to search and print material safety data sheets (MSDS) for chemicals in his lab.  I thought this was another lost effort and perhaps I was forcing something on him that he didn’t want.  Finally he accepted my idea to break down the task into manageable chunks – I suggested print 3 per week and dedicate 1hour for safety related tasks.  We reviewed the MSDS for diethyl ether which he used regularly to extract fat.  He nodded in recognition at the warning that this chemical may cause dizziness and should be used in a ventilated area.  He said he has at times felt dizzy during the fat extract and now it made sense.  We agreed that he and the other staff will try to stay out of the room as much as possible during the fat extraction operation and to leave the windows open.  We also discussed strategies for separating out incompatible chemicals and keeping the path clear around emergency showers.  I encouraged him to get involved with the organization’s Occupational Health and Safety Committee so that he can influence the purchase of necessary protective equipment in the future and share his knowledge of MSDS with other staff.  I was pleased with this successful small step towards awareness and building a safety culture in the Ethiopia labs.

It was appropriate that as I was typing the final sentences to this blog, I was humming to the Beatles song, “In My Life” as it streamed through my Ipod… “…the people and things…I know I will often stop and think about them…”  The wins as well as the losses make up the sum total of my fellowship experiences in Africa.  I will often stop and think about the people and things.  Working with the lab staff through these months has touched my life:  built my confidence to teach and share my experience base, forced me to accept my limitations, and provided me lesson topics to learn for the future.  I smile thinking that after I leave, when Shambel files a maintenance manual or when Getnet hands out a business card or when Solomone learns something new about how to protect against dangers of a chemical, they too will likely stop and think about me.

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