How do today’s laboratories apply LEAN or Six Sigma concepts? There are numerous approaches that can be taken and because of this the concept of LEAN or Six Sigma may be overwhelming. You may ask, where do I even start? There are some simple approaches labs can take, and still get big payoffs. As we found when we applied LEAN in our lab, the process can be a fun team building exercise that doesn’t have to be a daunting process to be beneficial. You can start small and use basic LEAN approaches such as those in 5S to get started.
Broken down the 5S’s are: Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain—essentially, “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
One great way to apply LEAN in the lab is in the layout of both the lab and individual work areas. Many of today’s laboratories are challenged with the need to increase capacity without increasing space. Many labs also need to maintain flexibility in design and layout as the space may be utilized by different departments. One way of gaining the maximal benefit from your lab space starts at the bench top or hood work surface. By optimizing the layout, you can create an efficient workspace area or what is called a work cell. A general definition of a LEAN/Six Sigma work cell is an efficient arrangement of items in the work area to improve speed and quality in the process.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help get you started:
As you review these questions, you may start wondering what these have to do with a work cell. How would these affect efficiencies? In Six Sigma, having excess ‘Motion’ and ‘Transport’ is defined as process waste. Too much of either or both can create variation in your process and strain on your operators, which can lead to safety, quality, and productivity inefficiencies.
Once you develop a snapshot of the processes and operator needs, you can start to piece together the needs of your work cell. An easy approach is to use a white board or poster presentation boards with sticky notes to help map out and plan your work cell. Here is a quick checklist to help you plan your work cell:
Once you have a work cell plan, create labels on the work area for each item. This will act as a guide for where items should be placed. In some cases, you may also want to label the item itself. As an example, a pipette stand could be labeled as such and would go in the area labeled “pipette stand” on the work cell area. If your work space needs to be flexible, you can create a map of the varied work cell layouts that you can post at the workstation. This will allow your operators to easily see where items go. One 5S point of this exercise is to ‘sustain’ the work cell area. You want it to stay this way and you want to help your operators keep it this way. If you have pipettes, reagents, etc. think about racks and stands that will allow you to store these items safely while still making it easy for your operators to access.
In summary, a work cell can help standardize work done in the area, minimize process wastes such as “motion” and “transport”, support 5S practices, and maximize space available. A recent article from Lab Manager – “Designing Labs for LEAN Operations”, stated that, “The design, layout, and placement of labs can have a significant positive or negative impact on the implementation and sustainability of lean processes and behaviors within the lab.” Having the appropriate layout and design can make or break your LEAN approaches. While it seems small, starting at the bench top level is an easy place to start and empower your lab to adopt a LEAN culture and become one of today’s LEAN laboratories.
There is a wealth of information regarding LEAN and ways it can be applied to the laboratory. Here are a few that primed the inspiration for this article.
Breeann Bryan is a dedicated laboratory professional with a LEAN Six Sigma Black Belt. Her background ranges from the bench to operations management. She is proud to share the knowledge she has gained from her experience and empower others to tackle their process improvement challenges. Whether it’s troubleshooting data quality issues or finding out how to maximize efficiency in the lab, she firmly believes that everyone deserves to have the right tools needed for the job.