How ARUP Makes it Safe for Teams to Thrive in Complexity

Mar 31, 2021 6:00 AM

Author: Isaac Holyoak


The pandemic has caused unparalleled disruptions to organizations all over the world. For some, it has been a destabilizing and crippling force; for others, it has ignited a vision and accelerated high-function performance. That's what happened at ARUP Laboratories, a national nonprofit and academic reference laboratory at University of Utah.

The pandemic has caused unparalleled disruptions to organizations all over the world. For some, it has been a destabilizing and crippling force; for others, it has ignited a vision and accelerated high-function performance. For ARUP Laboratories, a national nonprofit and academic reference laboratory in Salt Lake City, it’s been the latter.

Adam Barker, ARUP’s R&D director, was watching television at home with his wife, a physician at U of U Health, in early March last year when the story broke: the northwestern Lombardy region of Italy was locking down, upending ARUP’s supply of testing media and diagnostic swabs. COPAN Diagnostics, located in the Lombardy region of Italy, is one of the primary manufacturing facilities for nasopharyngeal swabs, the specialized laboratory testing equipment that look deceptively like common drugstore Q-tips. The next morning Barker joined with his colleagues to assess their situation. He learned they had about 10 days of swabs left. They would soon run out of media for molecular assays, serology tests, and other tests. The lab was in danger of grinding to a halt.

But it didn’t. Instead, ARUP thrived.

They found new suppliers for swabs. They developed, tested, published, and produced their own media. Their collection kit production increased from 34,000 kits/month in March 2020 to 325,000 kits/month in January 2021. They performed more than 1.6 million COVID-19 samples—more than 40% of samples processed in the state of Utah. And their employee ranks swelled by an additional 300 people.

How?

ARUP Laboratories thrived while so many other organizations have struggled because of its culture. A new case study by University of Utah’s health care learning community, Accelerate, explores how a key cultural driver—psychological safety—propelled ARUP through COVID complexity. The case study details three basic tenets of a psychologically safe workplace that employers can use right now.

ARUP articulated their problem as a learning opportunity rather than an execution problem, they acknowledged their own fallibility, and they modeled curiosity. Leaders facilitated rapid innovation and urgent response protocols that kept employees working toward the same goal. Frontline workers put forward their own ideas. Even as their supply chains were falling apart around them, collaboration and focus helped ARUP’s people respond with aplomb to the COVID-19 crisis.


Isaac Holyoak

Associate Director of Public Relations and Communication, UUMG, and Deputy Editor for Accelerate, U of U Health's learning community

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