(Reprinted from American Laboratory September 2006)
Despite the well-documented success of lean manufacturing in the past decades, by and large, laboratories have been slow to adopt lean manufacturing principles to help improve their performance and the services they provide to their customers. Yet this is far from unavoidable. On the contrary—as datarich environments very familiar with principles of measurement, laboratories are actually well positioned to effectively implement and take advantage of lean improvement techniques. Given the growing business pressures to increase laboratory efficiency levels, we are likely to witness a shift toward lean processes in the laboratory-centric organization. Whereas in the past a laboratory could delay product, batch, or lot release, the manufacturing environment of tomorrow will not tolerate such inefficiencies. As manufacturers and research organizations streamline their operations across the board, laboratories will also need to be seen as efficient and effective parts of the supply chain.
The tools for lean implementation
There are two main reasons that laboratory data are not already used to optimize laboratory processes. First, laboratories have not been compelled to improve their performance in the same way as manufacturers have. Secondly (and partly as a result of the first reason), LIMS and laboratory informatics suppliers have not provided the tools to help laboratories improve their performance. However, both of these conditions are rapidly changing: Laboratories are increasingly pressured to improve their performance, and the Resource Planning and Scheduling (RPS) module (STARLIMS Corp.,
The role of measurement
At the heart of any lean initiative or any continuous improvement initiative is measurement, i.e., measurement to help users understand their current position so that improvements can be identified, and measurement to help users understand if the improvements have been successful. The DMAIC methodology used in six sigma (which can form an important part of any lean initiative) is an excellent example of this. DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control:
Define the problem in the business
Measure current capabilities as they relate to the problem
Analyze the problem to discover the root cause
Improve the process
Control the process to maintain the improvements.
Clearly, measurement is a vital part of a number of these stages. It is difficult to improve what cannot be measured, and measurement is necessary to evaluate success. The measurement must then be continued to ensure that the improvement is maintained.
When considering lean processes and continuous improvement in the laboratory environment, measurement will be as important as in any other area, environment, or business. Because the laboratory environment is one in which measurement and observation are key processes, the concept of measurement will be very familiar to all laboratory staff. Laboratories are also exceptionally data-rich environments, especially if the data and information generated by the laboratory are effectively managed through the use of systems such as LIMS.