By Derek Lake
While Lean principles are typically associated with manufacturing processes, they can also deliver great improvements in the operation and productivity of the analytical laboratory. Even in heavily regulated life science and pharmaceutical laboratory environments where standard protocols can’t be modified, Lean principles can help to minimize waste, improve workflow efficiency, and increase throughput. The Lean approach has gained so much attention in the laboratory world that it is routinely presented at analytical meetings and conferences like the annual Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (PITTCON).
In general, Lean methodology is designed to remove “waste” or inefficiency from a process. In the lab, waste can negatively impact people and product quantity/quality. Waste in the laboratory can take many shapes and forms. For example, lab inefficiencies may exist because tasks are not standardized or operations are not fully understood by lab personnel. Unbalanced workflows can create idle time or redundancies, or cause instrumentation not to be used to its full capacity. An inefficient laboratory layout can cause wasted motion and add unnecessary delays to every step. Even inefficient storage and inventory schemes can create waste. Lean principles are focused on eliminating waste so that all activities/steps add value from the customer’s perspective.
Implementing Lean Methodologies
There are five guiding principles in implementing Lean methodologies:
Specify Value: Each analytical laboratory has a defined objective, whether it be product discovery, quality control, or testing and analysis. The value of the lab must first be understood from the customer’s perspective, whether that customer is internal or external. How do the laboratory services impact the customer’s value expectation? What happens if the output is late or quality poor?
Map The Value Stream: Map out all of the steps required to bring the product or service to the customer, from the acquisition of raw materials, to the execution of lab processes and the delivery of the final product or service. What are the cycle times and resources required in each step?
Establish Flow: Identify the end-to-end workflow necessary to deliver the final product or service to the customer. Understand the entire process and identify those steps that truly create value. These are where you will want to focus.
Implement Pull: The term “pull” in this case is defined by the customer need. In a Lean-based laboratory, a service is not provided or task performed until the customer signals the need (creates the pull).
Work To Perfection: The goal of the Lean Analytical Laboratory is the complete elimination of waste so that all lab activities are geared towards creating value for the customer. Once the above steps are completed, Lean processes can be slowly integrated into the lab workflows, evaluated, and refined over time.
Implementing Lean principles in any environment is challenging. Everyone reacts differently to change, and not everyone is open to change. The key to successful implementation is how the change process is managed. Most importantly, management must visibly endorse the Lean project and clearly communicate the reasons for evaluating and adopting Lean principles. The Lean project team should be composed of contributors from every area that may be affected by changes and empowered to implement the necessary changes. Often there is value in inviting an objective third party into the process to look at tasks and workflows differently than those so closely involved on a daily basis. Finally, it is important to define and outline tangible goals that can be measured during the process and after changes are implemented.
Through implementation of Lean principles, most labs could realize dramatic improvements in sample throughput, process turnaround, and customer satisfaction. In one recent example, a chemical and thermal testing lab employed Lean methodologies to improve the lab’s turnaround on work requests after receiving complaints from its internal customers. The Lean project group was tasked with tackling inefficiencies in one area but actually uncovered unexpected issues in other areas that were negatively impacting their level of service. They implemented changes in their workflows and lab organization that reduced their turnaround on testing requests from weeks to days, in some cases.
Derek Lake is a Six Sigma Black Belt in the Lexan process technology group at SABIC Innovative Plastics. Lake has taught several Lean Six Sigma classes and led numerous Lean improvement projects in laboratory, technology, and manufacturing settings.