Implementing LEAN at Sorenson Genomics: greater efficiency with in-house pipette calibration

Oct 28, 2015

lean laboratoryWe’ve had such great success applying LEAN at Artel, we were excited when we learned that one of our customers had also recently implemented a LEAN program in their lab. You can read the full story about how Sorenson Genomics saved time and money by taking a LEAN approach to pipette calibration in this article, which first appeared in the October issue of American Laboratory. The bottom line is that they were able to turn a cumbersome, expensive, and time consuming hassle into a streamlined process that, even though they now calibrate their pipettes in-house, saves them not only money but time and labor.

I recently spoke with Breeann Bryan, the Lab Manager for Sorenson’s Identigene services, to find out more about her experiences spearheading Sorenson’s LEAN approach for her lab.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about Sorenson Genomics?

A: We’re a DNA testing company that provides a range of services across different industries. Our clinical lab processes patient samples to provide pharmacogenetic and STD testing, and DNA provenance testing on tumor biopsy samples, which reduces diagnostic errors by confirming that the biopsy comes from the associated patient. Our forensics division helps law enforcement with a variety of DNA testing needs, from high-profile criminal cases to backlogged rape cases. Identigene offers direct-to-consumer testing for paternity and relationship assessment.

Because we provide services in regulated environments where quality is critical, we need to validate and document that our methods, instruments, and personnel all deliver the most accurate and precise results. This starts with our liquid handling and pipette calibration.

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Q: What was the catalyst behind your decision to apply a LEAN approach to pipette calibration?

A: We were evaluating our procedure for outsourcing small volume pipettes for calibration. We would rotate sending out sets of pipettes for calibration, but had issues with timely returns and uncertainties with their handling during shipping—were they knocked around and the calibration impaired?

We started using the DOWNTIME acronym in LEAN—Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-utilized talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Extra processing—to look at our pipette calibration process, and the more I looked, the more I kept seeing E’s, W’s, and N’s. Then there were the T’s, where we were transporting our pipettes all over the building to prepare them for shipping, and the I’s of excess inventory while one set of pipettes was out for calibration. We began to realize that the calibration process was long, cumbersome, and full of waste, even though it had been outsourced in an effort to save time and effort.

This was when we started thinking about bringing the pipette calibration in-house. We found Artel’s PCS Pipette Calibration System which simplified in-house calibration.

Q: How satisfied are you with the new in-house pipette calibration process?

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A: Very satisfied. In fact, we liked using the PCS so much that we expanded the types of pipettes we calibrate with the PCS to include all 50 pipettes delivering up to 30 µl. The PCS is easier and more reliable than gravimetric methods and less subject to environmental variations such as unusually dry or humid days. And it’s fast. Instead of our original procedure which could keep a pipette out of service for weeks, we can now take a low volume pipette, calibrate it in-house, complete the sign off process, and return it back to its user in the same day. The system is easy to use and the reports are clear, understandable, and look very professional.

Q: What was the most surprising finding of your LEAN look at pipette calibration?

A: When we quantified some of these wastes into dollar amounts, it was amazing to see how much time and how many resources were spent just to outsource these pipettes (see the case study  for the full cost analysis). There were some benefits to the new process that we couldn’t quantify, but you do see them via updates to the process flow or by seeing that my team members are now applying their skill set to actually performing the calibration instead of packing and shipping items.

Q: Any words of advice for other labs wishing to implement LEAN?

A: In all honesty, I was initially very skeptical when we started talking about LEAN. But once I started to learn more and think about LEAN in terms of our lab space, I was quite surprised at the good it can do. It’s a great way to get your staff involved and make improvements that involve everyone’s input. By using LEAN tools you have a standard set of rules and tools that you can use, but the beauty of LEAN is that you don’t just storm in and make changes. You really evaluate the issue, gain input, and then, by using the tools, you can get to the root cause and make an improvement that not only benefits your customers, but also your staff.

It’s also nice knowing that your project doesn’t have to be large—small changes can end up having a large impact. I think any lab that has a deadline or a turnaround time to meet with their products or services can really gain a lot by using LEAN. It’s a great way to identify wastes in the system and make fixes that can save time and money. Plus, it can give groups opportunities to collaborate together to make their areas better.

I think LEAN and Six Sigma can be overlooked in lab environments because they stemmed from production line and business-type environments. Laboratories may shy away from LEAN because they may think it won’t help them. In our experience, these tools can be very beneficial to anyone, though it may take some customization for your lab. I had a small project looking at one of our many processes and was surprised to see things that previously I hadn’t really recognized as waste. When you learn why things are wasteful and how that waste can be quantified, it’s shocking to see how much waste is present and empowering to know that it can be changed.

Learn more about how Breeann’s team at Sorenson Genomics implemented a LEAN approach to their pipette calibration process in In-house Pipette Calibration: The Lean Way.


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About the Expert

Pia Abola

Pia Abola is a scientist who walked out of the lab five years ago and stumbled into the world of marketing. She never had to look back because it turns out that she’s mostly doing the same things–both her lab work and her marketing work revolve around signalling and information transfer. Chemical, biochemical, behavioral, or digital signals, the math is the same — it’s just scale and medium that differs.