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What Is a Lean Laboratory?

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  • Written By: Jan Fletcher
  • Edited By: S. Pike
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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A lean laboratory is one in which managers organize workflow and work processes through application of lean practices. Essentially, lean laboratory management aims to instill an orderly, consistent work environment, in which errors are minimized and workflow is regulated. These production practices are based on lean manufacturing principles that originated in the Japanese automobile manufacturing sector post World War II.

Lean manufacturing is also referred to as just-in-time production. Some significant differences do exist between an automobile assembly operation, for example, and a laboratory work setting. As a result, the typical lean manufacturing arrangement cannot be fully emulated in a laboratory, so a variation of lean manufacturing is applied in labs. As laboratories may process work through batches, therein lies the challenge of regulating workflow and optimizing personnel.

Lean concepts are frequently referred to as the 5S: seiri (sorting and organizing), seiton (optimizing production assets), seiso (keeping placement of assets consistent), seiketsu (standardization of processes) and shitsuke (maintaining the new order). In a lean laboratory, this six-sigma standardization of processes is applied to the degree possible. The goal is to reduce wasted motion and errors through specifying standardized sequences of workflow. A major impediment to implementing a lean laboratory is the greater difficulty in regulating workflow, because individual tasks have longer completion times than they might in a typical factory.

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Rapid and unpredictable changes in lab orders also present challenges to streamlining production. One solution a lean strategy offers for managing the challenge in controlling workflow is queuing work processes. A flow chart may also be devised, illustrating the steps in the process. A visual depiction can spot problems caused by gaps in defined sequences, so managers can reformulate workflow for greater efficiency.

Controlling waste in a lean laboratory focuses on preventing errors in processes, and errors in inefficient documentation procedures. As a result, computerization of documentation may be one aspect of leaning a laboratory. Proper assignment of responsibility is critical to lean laboratory practices. A software solution can provide managers with up-to-the-minute reports on production times and the depth of queue, allowing more efficient use of lab workers.

Quality-control measures in a laboratory also benefit from lean laboratory practices, because a standardized sequence of tasks and cross training are usually part of the leaning process. A division of work tasks may benefit productivity through clearly assigning the area of responsibility of task completion to the technicians. This allows managers to focus on ensuring proper instrumentation is in place, instead of task management. At times, extra technicians may be needed if the work queue becomes too long. The volatility of workflow is the most pernicious problem facing laboratory managers.

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