3 quick wins to make your lab leaner.

5 August, 2022

Greg Heaslip

Lean lab expert

When I was a Principal Consultant with BSM, I specialized in implementing lean methodologies at pharmaceutical QC labs. Much of the advice that I provided to clients involved establishing new strategies and processes that would often require institutional buy-in and, ultimately, resulted in fundamental changes being applied over an extended period. You can read more about some of those recommendations in this article.

However, I also always tried to identify some “quick wins” that the teams could rapidly implement to make their labs leaner at low cost and which would deliver immediate benefits without the need for specialist expertise. In this blog I want to share a few of these quick wins to help you on your journey towards a leaner lab.

#1 – Standardize

Standardizing work is usually the first step to making your lab leaner. While this is certainly true for all workplaces, it is admittedly easier to implement in a QC lab, especially since standard times can be readily applied to analytical test methods.

Non-test standard repeatable activities such as calibrations, cleaning tasks, safety audits, etc. can take up a surprising amount of time and, in many cases, can consume nearly 50% of an analyst’s working week! If process standardization can be applied to achieve even small efficiency gains for individual tasks, the benefits can quickly aggregate as those tasks are repeated over time (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). This therefore represents a great place to begin your own lean lab assessment.

Ultimately, standardizing lab processes enables scientists to dedicate more of their time to the interesting, scientific work for which they trained because they no longer need to dedicate as much energy to the routine processes that have been streamlined.

It’s worth noting that this sort of streamlining isn’t limited to QC functions – every time I assessed performance in an R&D lab (for instance), it was always possible to standardize at least 60% of their work and therefore make dramatic efficiency and productivity gains.

#2 – 5S program

Despite being probably the easiest, cheapest and quickest lean initiative to carry out, a surprising number of labs still have not implemented a 5S program (sometimes called 6S).

In short, these programs allow labs to achieve greater efficiencies by ordering the workspace in such a way that everyone can find what they need, where they need it and when it is needed. An organized and safely arranged lab means less analyst time spent unnecessarily moving between workstations, hunting for samples, materials and tools, and manoeuvring around each other, freeing them up to concentrate on the task at hand.

A good 5S program is easy to understand, usually achieves wide buy-in across the workforce and will give your workplace an immediate boost in productivity. It can also reduce workplace stress and it will marginally improve overall quality , so I strongly recommend exploring options if you haven’t already.

While implementation doesn’t require a lot of expertise, some guidance will be beneficial to get started. There are numerous free resources available online that offer examples of common approaches and, if external support is required, various companies provide specialist consulting services; some examples are below:

Bonus content

#3 – Visual management

“Anyone should be able to walk into a lab and, within 5 minutes, understand its current operational status and medium term performance without using a computer or speaking to anyone.”

This, in a nutshell, is the goal of a visual management program. You could argue that it is somewhat dated and that, with the proliferation of technology, we should include the use of computers (especially as they can be used to display up-to-date performance KPIs and other dynamic metrics). Either way, the objective is to use visual cues to understand the status of the lab at any given time – particularly for short term control for QC labs where things move quickly.

Some examples of quick visual management wins that you could implement today include the clear, consistent organization and labelling of:

  • Batch documentation, providing at-a-glance understanding of priority, including which batches are due and which are late;
  • Reagent management and storage, allowing safe and unambiguous identification of different chemicals and materials, including stock levels and consumption rates;
  • Lab cart layout, indicating the progress of tests that must be performed in a fixed sequence.

For a deeper dive on visual management, why not check out our recent article on the topic!

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