Applying LEAN in your lab

Oct 01, 2015

defining-LEAN-5SCan lessons learned from streamlining workflows and processes in manufacturing be of any use to scientists in research, development, and service labs?  Our experience at Artel is a resounding yes.

The skinny on LEAN

One of the big movements in the manufacturing world is implementation of a process called LEAN, which is aimed at increasing customer value by minimizing waste. The term was coined in the 1980s, while a team of MIT researchers was studying business processes at Toyota. They took what they learned and converted it into a holistic program that assesses processes together over a period of time, rather than as isolated verticals, by department, or by type. Starting from the basics, LEAN practitioners first review the way they do things, then track the number of steps taken to complete each process, analyze the activity and finally determine how to streamline and/or reduce the number of steps.

What we realized when we got serious about utilizing LEAN is that it’s not just reworking your processes, it’s about changing how you think and how you approach problems and workflows. Even though we implemented LEAN for a specific reason and that phase is done, my team and I find that we still use the approaches we learned almost every day.

LEAN helped provide more value by being more efficient with space

As our company has grown, so have the demands on our laboratory. We have always had a culture of continuous improvement, so with the need to further expand the lab’s capabilities to accommodate a new product line, and stymied by a perceived lack of space, we found the perfect opportunity to implement LEAN. We asked ourselves, could our lab, like many labs, be further optimized for space utilization or workflows? Looking at the lab through a LEAN lens, the answer was yes. At the end of the exercise – it took almost a whole year – we found:

  • we had plenty of space without enlarging the lab footprint
  • our workflows were simpler and smoother
  • our most valuable resources – our people and their time – were more available.

We got the idea to implement a LEAN approach because several of us had been independently trying to learn more about LEAN and Six Sigma through classes, certifications, and, for me, being part of a LEAN roundtable group where we visited different companies to learn more about LEAN execution. It seemed like the right approach to take in solving our space problem.

Our group of five started LEAN implementation with 5S – a system to increase efficiency, i.e. to free up time and personnel resources and space – which has become one of the main components of most LEAN implementations. Each of us concentrated on learning about one of the 5Ss – Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain – and presented our findings to the group. We had regular meetings where we shared ideas, brainstormed improvements, and mapped out process flows. It was eye opening and actually quite a lot of fun!

Lean-5S-definition

We took a really close look at all of our processes and every test method, analyzing and mapping out each one. We asked ourselves, how much unnecessary movement is connected with each method?  Interestingly, our focus on reducing unneeded movement led to not only re-positioning of instruments and workstations, but also deeper inquiry into the instrumentation per se – i.e. is there an asset, a replacement or a new concept – that will further optimize our workflow? Or is there unneeded redundancy in our instrumentation?

Continuing our investigation, we kept our primary focus on maintaining the lab’s pre-eminent status in highly accurate and precise liquid volume metrology. That means, for Artel, employing the best possible environmental controls and management. So, part of our equation was coping with such things as the heat load of our personnel and assets, and ensuring that we maintained or improved the energy balance as we executed our LEAN program.

As we proceeded down the path of analyzing each step in our lab, and questioning the necessity of everything about it, we found a number of opportunities to eliminate apparent “waste” in movement and space, and gain new efficiencies. We prepared spaghetti diagrams which illustrate sizable reductions in movement and space requirements; in one case 300 steps were reduced to 25, significantly streamlining movement through rearranging the lab for better flow.

I mentioned earlier that implementing LEAN ended up being quite a bit of fun, which was a little surprising. But another great outcome is that it really brought us together as a team. We all owned the process, we worked hard on it together, and our improved workflows are measurable, daily reminders of our joint victories. We’re now able to focus even more resources on responding to customer requests and to answering the needs of the internal development team – all the while fulfilling our continuing principal role in quality control and testing for the products we provide to our customers.

Advice on implementing LEAN in your lab

While the desire to implement LEAN in some companies starts with the management and then rolls down, things were different for us because it was wholly our initiative and a process we owned. So our situation may be different from those in other labs. We started implementation with the 5Ss – and this was really the right thing for us because of the need for more space – while we learned more about LEAN. After engaging in LEAN, we realized how powerful it was, we were able to start up a Kaizen program, and we really got (and still keep) the LEAN ball rolling.

My advice for other labs wanting to try LEAN is to, perhaps, try something similar. Start with the 5Ss, learn more about LEAN, and begin with a small project so that you can be successful. To help you get started, I’ve referenced some resources below that helped our team.


Additional Resources


About the Author

Doreen Rumery

Doreen Rumery, Laboratory Technical Manager and Quality Control Manager at Artel, is a certified Medical Laboratory Technologist and ASQ Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence with more than 30 years in the clinical laboratory and manufacturing industries.  Doreen oversees all laboratory activities at Artel, including technical operations, method validation, technician training and conformance with current regulatory standards.