Monday 2 May 2022

5 Ways Lean Thinking Can Improve Laboratories


Lean thinking’s implications go far beyond the manufacturing industry. This model's low-waste, high-efficiency principles can be advantageous to any sector with a need for efficiency, accuracy or ongoing optimization. One particularly promising application outside of manufacturing is the lean laboratory.

By Emily Newton

Labs are a crucial part of the medical industry and other science sectors. They also rely on costly cutting-edge equipment, extreme accuracy and repeatability, and must be as fast as possible in many cases. As a result, they’re ideal use cases for lean principles.


Here are five ways lean thinking can improve laboratory operations. It can provide the methodology to boost efficiency, safety and accuracy, leading to better results.

1. Minimizing Costs


One of the most significant benefits of lean laboratories is their potential for cost reduction. The medical industry has a dire need to minimize expenses, considering 50% of Americans in 2021 carried medical debt. Lean processes can help fight that trend by reducing lab inefficiencies and waste.


Running a lab involves a lot of expensive machinery, so long lead times result in high costs. Lean principles help speed these processes by optimizing workflows and removing time waste. As a result, labs run this expensive equipment for shorter periods, lowering operating costs and eventually affecting end-user expenses.


Reducing material waste helps further minimize expenses. Improving process accuracy and reducing inventory helps labs prevent sample spoilage. With enough of these improvements, patient costs will drop, as well.

2. Maximizing Productivity


Labs can further benefit from lean thinking by improving their productivity. Lab work requires a specific and advanced skill set in every field, making it challenging to find qualified workers. That, in turn, can lead to inefficiencies and delays, but lean practices can counteract this trend.


Demand for clinical laboratory personnel is rising, but training programs are declining simultaneously. Labs can mitigate this challenge by embracing the lean principle of reducing manual processes. Automation and less physical movement will improve workflow efficiency, letting labs accomplish more despite a diminished workforce.


The worker shortage isn’t as severe when a few people can accomplish the work of several. Labs that do that can avoid costly delays, meet rising demand and drive future success.

3. Reducing Errors


Labs require high accuracy standards, more so than many other operations. For example, temperatures shouldn’t fluctuate more than 1 degree Fahrenheit for ideal equipment performance. With such a small acceptable margin for error, laboratories need to reduce mistakes as much as possible.


Lean thinking provides the means to do just that. Automating more processes in the name of efficiency allows labs to reduce the likelihood of human error. Machines can perform repetitive tasks with repeatability that would be impossible for humans, avoiding mistakes that come from boredom or lack of attention.


Lean workflows also typically capitalize on technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) to enable ongoing improvements. These increase visibility and control, helping labs refine their processes and eliminate errors.

4. Improving Research


A secondary but still crucial benefit of lean laboratories is how they can improve research. The scientific method requires high repeatability and control so researchers can determine the causes of the outcomes they observe. Discoveries are only significant if they’re replicable, and lean thinking helps with that.


Lean processes often employ extensive automation, which delivers more consistency than manual operations. Similarly, eliminating error-prone processes is a core tenant of the lean philosophy. These improvements make research projects more accurate and repeatable, aiding faster, more reliable discoveries.


The lean principle of ongoing improvement also requires extensive record keeping. This data provides more insight into experiments, further improving research projects. This increased reliability could lead to potentially world-changing breakthroughs.

5. Enhancing Safety


Lean thinking can improve laboratory safety. While labs aren’t the most dangerous workplaces, they can still be risky. Mistakes with certain chemicals or machinery could have severe consequences. Lean principles help eliminate that risk.


A shocking 27% of surveyed researchers say they’ve never conducted a risk assessment before performing lab work. The lean model requires these to make workflow improvements. Increasing visibility through lean processes allows labs to reveal potential risks they can then mitigate.


Automation and workflow simplification also removes the likelihood of dangerous errors. Similarly, dividing processes into work cells can help clarify each stage and prevent potentially hazardous mix-ups.

The Age of the Lean Laboratory Is Here


Laboratories are a crucial part of many industries in a world that relies so heavily on science and technology. Consequently, improvements in these workspaces create cascading benefits throughout entire sectors. Given that potential, lean laboratories must become the standard.


Labs typically involve many inefficiencies and hazards that lean thinking could reduce or even eliminate. By implementing lean principles, labs in any industry can move past historic challenges and become more efficient, accurate and safe than ever.


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