I think this is a universal truth, but it is certainly true in labs. The most stressful role is middle management. I enjoyed my time as a bench chemist doing the actual work. I enjoy supervising projects at a higher level. But most of my bad memories of my career are when I was in between – managing a team but reporting to senior management.
You just aren’t in control.
One incident sticks in my mind. A new senior manager was appointed. One of his first actions was to engage an external firm to run a ‘problem solving’ course for all the junior staff. He just didn’t tell any of the middle managers like myself what he had done.
The first we found out was when our reports told us about it. If you have a hierarchy, it is really easy to upset people by going over or under people’s heads. The middle managers were responsible for scheduling activities and really needed to know if their teams were going to be unavailable for 2 days – quite apart from the embarrassment of discovering from our juniors the schedule we had worked out was impossible because of the actions of our superior. The people at my level concluded that he had probably got the idea on a ‘problem creating’ course. It takes a certain kind of genius to cause a problem in the process of arranging a course intended to prevent problems.
In fact it sounded like a good course judging from the feedback from the attendees. One of the points they took away from it is that people with particular expertise often try to solve problems using the tools of their own discipline. This is certainly true and something I’ve been guilty of in the past. I hope I won’t be again but habits are hard to shift.
It reminded me of a time when I’d faced a serious problem in a small manufacturing company where I’d had to cover quite a few roles including Quality Control. There had been a series of intermittent incidents where products had failed the microbial count specification. This was obviously a big issue, with piles of unsellable stock building up in the warehouse. I investigated and was able to trace the source back to the water purifying unit.
I set about solving the problem using the tools that seemed the most obvious. I set up a specification for the water quality. I then drew up a testing schedule. I also got in touch with suppliers of water treatment chemicals to get options for better clean down procedures. I was diligent, meticulous and above all completely logical in my approach. Everyone involved agreed with the approach I was taking and I was confident I was going about it the right way. It felt quite good.
But the problem wasn’t solved. It kept happening. In fact the statistics I had been compiling indicated that nothing I had done had had the slightest effect on the number of fails we were getting.
Luckily I attended a meeting of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists where I talked about my issue with some more experienced people. “Happens all the time” I was told. It turned out that the kind of water purifier we were using was prone to building up biofilms in the filters. These are colonies of bacteria that stick to one another and accumulate in such quantities that you can actually see them. They are similar to the plaque that you sometimes get on your teeth. These biofilms are very hard to prevent because once they get established they create their own little microenvironment which resists the chemicals that conscientious but ill informed young chemists like myself at the time might use in an attempt to control them. In fact they thrive. It is only when they have got big that they reveal themselves, breaking up and entering the water that is flowing past them and getting into the products.
It was, it turned out, a well known problem with a well known solution. You just keep the machine running continuously. It turns out the biofilms can’t develop in running water.
Armed with this information I could go back to my notes and spot the pattern that had been there all the time. The contamination only happened shortly after the water purifier had been out of action for a period of time. Rearranging the scheduling to make sure that water was being purified more or less continually finally solved the problem.
It wasn’t that my expertise was useless. The quality control data was invaluable in confirming that our problem was the same one that I heard about. But I’d made the mistake of trying to solve the problem in my own discipline. Nothing I had done was actually wrong, but I should also have spoken to microbiologists, looked at the production patterns, physically examined the filters (I didn’t bother with that because, you know, germs are microscopic) and most importantly of all talked to other people doing the same job. Even doing a technical job you still need soft skills like communication and thinking outside the box.
This was brought home to me again by a bit of a spat I got involved with on Facebook. Somebody posed an interesting problem. They had visited a lavender farm where they made a lavender hydrolat on the premises. But it was unpreserved. Is this a possible source of contamination they asked? On the face of it you would think that it would. Hydrolats is a fancy name for what some people still call floral waters. You steam distil lavender to extract the oil, and the water left over from the process contains enough of lavender to retain an appealing smell. Presumably the odour comes from organic molecules that a sufficiently soluble in water.
You’d expect a dilute solution of water soluble organic molecules to be good environment for microbial growth. If germs can grow in water purifiers they have the potential to grow anywhere. The stuff comes from steam so it will start out sterile, but over time germs will get in and should break down the molecules into different ones. So you’d expect the chemical nature to change – the smell will alter and in all likelihood there will be an accumulation of organisms on the bottom. This is what happens when you make wine for example. It takes modern techniques to avoid a frost like deposit of yeast at the bottom of a wine bottle.
And yet people have been making floral water for centuries without any such problems. Lavender water and rose water are both regularly sold without preservatives and both keep their odour intact for years. They are also regularly used in the production of other products which are monitored for microbial problems. I have never experienced or heard of any issues arising from their use. There are other floral waters that are used less widely, but they seem to behave in much the same way.
I find this interesting. Is it something to do with the dilution making it impossible for microbes to get a foot hold? Is it tiny traces of metal ions from the still that inhibit growth? Does the steam distillation process create some highly potent molecule with super-preservative powers? If it is the latter there is probably a patent and a highly profitable biocidal product up for grabs for the first person that identifies it.
The reason I got into spat about it was that a couple of people from the industry instantly came to the conclusion that yes you should have a preservative, and furthermore you should have tight quality control procedures in place as well. They were a bit non-plussed when I thought otherwise. Well I can’t fault their caution. Had somebody just invented floral waters and presented them to me I’d have thought the same. They do sound like an obvious source microbial problems. And I suppose it isn’t totally impossible that they are. As far as I know there has never been a survey to see if regular floral water users are more prone to skin infections. Perhaps they are at a low level. I doubt it – there is absolutely no evidence of any harm from these widely used waters. But you never know.
What is definitely true is that there have been more incidents of microbial contamination of cosmetics in recent years. This has been mainly down to big companies like the Honesty Company’s attempts to avoid conventional preservatives but has also been smaller natural companies using more natural ingredients. So this is a not problem to be taken lightly. But microbial problems are subtle and need a broad approach as I learnt all those years ago with that contaminated water purifier. And you can’t always solve them in your own discipline.