Lean Laboratory: Software Tools That Save Time & Money

Lab Organization

Schematic of waste sources in a lean manufacturing or a lean laboratory environment. Created by Alhmodeus, licensed under [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Schematic of waste sources in a lean manufacturing or a lean laboratory environment. Created by Alhmodeus, licensed under [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Since the introduction of the Japanese concept of “leanness” in business, many different groups have implemented the lean concept to improve their internal processes.1  Surprisingly, the lean methodology hasn’t permeated pharmaceutical research, development, or discovery practices– at least not explicitly. As it turns out, there are a number of burdens that the biopharmaceutical industry has to carry which make implementing leanness throughout the entire pipeline quite difficult, but at the scale of the individual laboratory’s operations, being lean is possible with the help of software integration.

The question remains: why aren’t labs scrambling to become more lean so that they can save valuable time and money? Answering this question requires understanding both the concept of leanness as well as the operations of the typical laboratory.

What Are Lean Laboratory Principles?

While lean processes were originally designed to be implemented in Toyota car manufacturing plants rather than in laboratories, many of the concepts are relevant in multiple lab scenarios, 2 and subsequent refinements to the lean methodology have made it even more adaptable to other contexts. Much like other methodologies in other disciplines, exactly what constitutes “lean” lab operations is up for debate. In general, lean lab operations seek to:

  • Reduce waste
  • Reduce foot traffic
  • Maintain single-purpose areas
  • Maintain a data custody chain so that data only has one owner at every point in time
  • Maintain a just-in-time inventory supply chain
  • Minimize time wasted at every step of every process
  • React to increased volumes of input gracefully
  • Eliminate overproduction
  • Eliminate variance in rate and quality of output

Lean manufacturing has revolutionized the manufacturing industry, but its application to the biopharmaceutical industry has yet to be fully implemented.3 Eliminating wastefulness is all well and good during manufacturing phases, but eliminating wastefulness as a standard practice in research groups may unintentionally eliminate a lucky breakthrough or finding.

Common to all of the definitions of leanness is the quantification of the amount of work that an individual task takes to complete from start to finish.4 In the context of a lab, this means that lean labs must:

  • Atomize every SOP into the tiniest of physical steps
  • Assign a difficulty or “weight” to each of those tiny steps, taking into account resources like operator focus, equipment use, and reagent consumption
  • Map the points of expected heavy weight bearing– typically on a rate-limiting process
  • Understand how to feed work into the rate limiting processes in a way which minimizes the amount of backlog yet does not starve the step after rate limiting of its input
  • Aspire to have some slack in the system to account for unexpected introduction of weight

In practical terms, this means that labs need to have equipment booking practices that are more than a Google calendar or piece of paper taped to the side of the machine. This also means that labs need reagent control that’s better than an Excel sheet or holding a vial up to the light to see if there are enough microliters left inside to run an experiment.

Software solutions to these problems are typically spread across multiple systems, and, as most scientists know, never truly reach complete adoption among the lab staff. In the capacity that most laboratories attempt to use software to be lean, they in fact introduce weight and waste because their tools for maintaining leanness aren’t integrated under one platform and always cause extra work for the user. To truly embody leanness, labs must have a single software hub which is accessed in the same motion as each step of work rather than as a separate item that requires transitioning.

Your Lab Already Aspires To Reach Lean Lab Status

Laboratories stand to gain the most from trimming down their operations to be as lean as possible, and also to embody the ideal of leanness as much as possible.5 Labs also have the best chance at actually implementing lean laboratory concepts because their mandates, inputs and outputs are narrowly defined. Inventory is expected to be expended at a certain rate, protocols are operated exactly the same each time, and the only potential point of extra weight is a glut of unexpected samples.6 For these labs, practicing lean principles allows them to handle unexpectedly large volumes of work gracefully and waste as little as possible while accommodating the needs of whoever is next in the chain of sample custody.

Most laboratories in the research and development environment work within a far less predictable environment. R&D labs must also take into consideration frequently changing SOPs, GLP/GMP practices, and thus tend to have more waste. More waste means that they have more to benefit by implementing lean principles using software, and in R&D, waste is expensive.

Connecting All The Lab Elements Together Without Waste

Normal laboratories are far from doomed to live devoid of “leanness,” however. There are many software solutions which can integrate all of a laboratory’s processes under one hood such that leanness is embedded in operations practice.

BIOVIA Unified Lab Management capabilities allow for streamlined and more efficient lab workflows, harmonization and standardization and a fully integrated and automated easy to deploy process. BIOVIA Unified Lab Management not only integrates the BIOVIA applications but also all major 3rd party systems and instruments. It also builds the basis for seamless data transfer between the different domains from Research to Manufacturing and with external collaborators. Contact us today to find out how we can help you use our powerful software to cut waste out of your lab’s day to day activities.

  1.  “Thinking Lean.” August 2009, http://www.labmanager.com/lab-design-and-furnishings/2009/08/thinking-lean
  2. “The Genealogy Of Lean Production.” March 2007, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272696306000313?via%3Dihub
  3.  “Evolution Of The Field of Operations Management.” March 2007, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272696307000022
  4.  “Design A Lean Laboratory Layout.” February 2006, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cd5c/e765c897793886a5fbc46d1bcb00aaef04b0.pdf
  5.  “Adoption of Lean Principles In A High-Volume Molecular Diagnostic Microbiology Laboratory.” November 2017, http://jcm.asm.org/content/52/7/2689.short
  6.  “Applying The Principles of Lean Production to Gastrointestinal Biopsy Handling: From the Factory Floor to the Anatomic Pathology Laboratory.” August 2015, https://academic.oup.com/labmed/article/46/3/259/2657939