We regularly work with labs where all or part of the workload is project based. These labs are significantly different and in many ways more challenging than routine ‘QC release’ type labs. That said, the Real Lean principles of Levelling, Flow and Standard Work can and should be applied (albeit a little differently) to these labs. If done correctly they will address the main drivers of poor and/or inconsistent performance.
Projects Labs are tough!
Laboratories with project based workloads often have greater volatility in both the volume and mix of work than other lab types. There can be variable work content across different projects for tasks with the same name and possible re-test / re-work loops at each stage. The work content of later steps may only be clear after the preceding step is complete. This all adds to the inherent ‘Short Interval’ workload volatility, both for the overall lab and for individual personnel. In addition, work on individual projects and samples often ‘stops and starts’ with no real ‘Flow’ or ‘Standard Work’. There may also be enforced delays waiting for information or material from other labs or third parties.
Visibility on the progress of individual projects and samples can be difficult with constant re-prioritization and significant non value adding effort expended in tracking and managing projects. This reduces the time available for ‘real’ project work.
No wonder then that this type of lab often struggles to be operationally excellent and / or to achieve good measurable performance.
What is excellence for a Project based Lab?
Because the workload can be anything, excellence in Project based functions is the ability to make accurate commitments to the business and to reliably and consistently meet those commitments while using resources well and eliminating wasteful practices
- All project type groups have a finite capacity which cannot easily or quickly be increased or decreased. If the incoming workload exceeds this capacity, project work will have to be held in a queue until current project activities are completed (or postponed).
- Very often the available capacity of the Lab is not well understood and there is no mechanism to level the workload or to calculate accurate commitment dates based on overall Lab workloads.
- There can also be sub-optimal utilisation of human resources (usually in the form of volatility and imbalance in individual peoples workloads)
In order to be able to make accurate commitment dates to the business for new project work, the lab needs to be able to quantify current and new project workloads in terms of the consumption of lab capacity. The real constraint in most project labs is availability of human resources so the lab needs to visualize its current portfolio of projects in terms the consumption of human resources (normally measured in ‘role days’) versus available calendar days.
Elements of a Real Lean Solution for Project based Labs
For most project based Labs the constraint is human resources. Therefore the most productive a lab can be, is to give every person a day’s work every day.
- Most projects involve interaction with other functions and / or have other inherent delays or decoupling points. Flow in these environments is achieved by dividing the process into logical milestones and flowing from milestone to milestone. Each milestone should be a task or group of tasks that can be completed from start to finish within the lab. The milestones should be defined and sized in “Role Days” which is both a unit of effort and a unit of time. Use checklists to ensure that all information, data, decisions and material needed to complete the milestone are available before starting it and don’t start working on a milestone unless it can be finished.
- Flow between milestones is normally achieved via (cross functional) visual management boards, checklists and direct person to person interaction with the other process stakeholders. The aim is to avoid long email trails and enable decisions to be made quickly.
2. Levelling and Standard Work:
The objective of levelling and standard work is to give each person a balanced productive workload each day. If the tasks and the effort in the milestones are consistent from project to project, then it is possible to have defined and documented role cards for each elapsed day of the milestone.
If however the milestones and the effort required to complete them can vary from project to project, then there will need to be a ‘triage’ process to define and size the milestones for each project. Dynamic daily roles are assembled based on priorities and the triage of the effort required for each tranche of work
Essentially the lab maintains a virtual queue of executable milestones (i.e. milestones for which the lab has everything they need to complete the work) and assigns them to individuals in order of closeness to the final commit date given to the business.
3. Short Interval Control
To be operationally excellent the lab needs a process for:
- Daily task management and assignment of Roles
- Visualization of Role & Project progress
- Interventions & recovery actions as required
- The assigned tasks are visualised on a daily visual management board.
- The task owners use coloured magnets to update the current status of their tasks during the day (usually on their way to the canteen at break times).
- Green = the task is on schedule versus the guidelines indicated in the milestone and role cards
- Orange = the task / role is currently behind schedule but should still be finished on time
- Red = the task /role is behind schedule and unlikely to be completed on time
- The supervisor or group leader works with the group to agree recovery actions as needed
- Role progress and performance are reviewed at a 5-10 minute daily huddle meeting held at the daily visual management board
4. Performance Management
Proactive management of Performance requires:
- Routine measurement, review and analysis of Lab performance
- Timely interventions to address negative trends and / or improve performance.
Appropriate Customer Performance and Leading Lab process metrics (consistent with company goals) are agreed and defined for
Quality / Timeliness /Productivity / Others as required
If necessary a process to collect the data and update weekly graphs is established. The lab team review performance and trends at a structured weekly meeting and initiate corrective actions and/or mini projects as required.
This Blog was written by Tom Reynolds, Operations Practice Director with BSM. If you would like further information on Lean in Laboratories please send an e-mail to Tom.