Lean originated in the automotive industry and it’s easy to see how the tools and concepts are a good fit for that type of manufacturing. It’s much less obvious however that Lean can and should be applied in Labs. In recent times Lean Lab projects have become quite common but….Is Lean really an appropriate strategy in the Lab environment or are labs just blindly following trends?
The origins of lean
Toyota called their approach the Toyota Production system (or TPS). It was and still is based on ‘flow and pull’. It was developed by Taichii Ohno and Shigeo Shingo both of whom had books translated into English in the late eighties when the productivity and quality gains of the Toyota production system became evident to the outside world.
What is Lean anyway?
- Mura – uneveness (volatility)
- Muri – overburden (over loading of people or equipment)
The significance of Mura and Muri is often misunderstood and underestimated. Flow, Pull and Standard Work are also key concepts in the Toyota system but once again these are often poorly understood and inadequately addressed in many Lean projects. There is a simple reason for this. Waste is easy to see and understand and tools like Value Stream Mapping help identify lots of wastes to work on whereas Levelling and Flow are much more difficult to understand and address, particularly in Labs. Unfortunately Lean is a space littered with well ‘qualified’ but poor practitioners.
Labs are Different
- There is usually more workload and mix volatility. i.e. the mix and volume of samples often varies significantly day to day and week to week.
- There is often a complex mix of routine and non routine testing, other tasks and project work all sharing the same resources.
- There is often a significant additional GMP/GLP compliance burden.
- For many tests the effort required to set up a test is significant compared to the sample run time - this makes ‘one piece flow’ unfeasible and some grouping of samples essential.
- Typically, analyst travel time (to gather materials, etc) is a much smaller proportion of the overall task time than in manufacturing. This means that the ‘movement’ waste is less significant and Lean tools like ‘spaghetti diagrams’ and 5S are less important.
- Individual Analyst workloads often vary from day to day and week to week.
- There is usually a higher degree of variety and complexity in individual daily roles.
- Many standard Lean Tools like Line Balance charts, Value Stream Mapping, Takt time, etc. work differently (if at all).
- The core principles of Lean still apply but a generic approach using a standard tool kit will struggle in the Lab.
- Consistent predictable performance
- Reduced levels of WIP and inventory
- Greater empowerment of laboratory personnel
- A culture of pro-active performance management and continuous improvement
- Improved customer service levels.