How to Improve Laboratory Efficiency

“Work smarter, not harder,” is not just a phrase, it is a philosophy that can be realized through the evaluation of efficiency. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, efficiency is defined as the effective operation as measured by a comparison of production with cost; the ratio of the useful energy delivered by a dynamic system to the energy supplied to it. Improving the efficiency of an organization should be the goal of every business owner and manager.

Many people tend to relate increased efficiency with shortcuts that reduce product and service quality. This is not true. Efficiency is simply effective time and resource management. That is it. The goal is to eliminate inefficiencies and make processes more consistent (reliable), repeatable, and reproducible. In theory, it will improve quality. Make the most of time, invest in improving efficiency.

Running a laboratory is a lot like project management. There are three important factors that must be constantly balanced; scope, cost, and time. Using a light combination of the principles of project management and systems engineering, the following tips are provided to influence and inspire the facilitation of a task where the goal is to improve efficiency.

laboratory-workflow

01. Tune Your Process

The best way to increase efficiency is to reduce the time it takes to complete a process. The most common and effective way to reduce the duration of the process is to eliminate inefficiencies. To accomplish this, it will be necessary to evaluate laboratory processes.

Create an outline and draw a flowchart identifying each step in the process. Think of the process as a system, where inputs are converted to outputs. Keep the steps in order. It will help during the evaluation.

PERT-chart

With the outline and flowchart developed, conduct a walk-through evaluation from beginning to end. Use a stopwatch and record the start and stop time of each task. Carry a notepad and take notes on observations made during the walk-through. While making observations, look for efficiencies, errors, and redundant tasks.

After the walk-though is complete, evaluate the findings. Perform a top-to-bottom and bottom-to top evaluation. Eliminate unnecessary tasks, inefficiencies, and redundancy. Assess whether or not multiple tasks can be performed simultaneously. Evaluate the duration of each task and determine if they can be performed in less time without impacting other steps of the process.

Use the evaluation process to identify problems and constraints. Next, formulate solutions and redesign the process. Implement the new process, conduct another walk-through evaluation, and verify the results. Determine whether or not the proposed solutions were a success. If not, reevaluate and repeat the process until a desired result is achieved.

When the more efficient process is implemented and verified successful, validate the new process and amend the necessary standard operating procedures. Monitor the performance of the new process over time. Constantly look for new ways to improve process efficiency.

02. Allocate Your Resources

Allocation of resources is a commonly overlooked aspect of management. However, it is a critical task that must be performed in order to increase efficiency. The benefits of properly allocating resources are a direct increase in productivity and a reduction in operating costs.

Workstations

Look at employee workstations. Determine whether or not they are effectively setup to accomplish 80% of the required work (Think of the Pareto Principle, a.k.a. the rule of 80/20) without movement or minimum travel. If not, redesign the workstation.

From experience, I once had admin personnel travelling across the building to retrieve papers from the printer. At an average of 62 seconds each round trip and an average of 30 trips a day, we were losing approximately 31 minutes of productivity per person. Designing an effective workstation makes a difference.

Scheduling

Scheduling work and resources is another critical task that can increase efficiency. Although tedious and cumbersome, scheduling must be performed to avoid the perils of autonomy. Furthermore, scheduling is the task that presents the most risk to impact an organization financially.

When considering the calibration of in-house equipment, whether it is serviced internally or outsourced, think about scheduling service at a time when equipment use will be less frequent and probable. This will help avoid delays in the turnaround time of laboratory work, which directly affects customer satisfaction and impacts customer retention.

To control the flow of laboratory work, schedule calibration services for customers. Offer clients incentives to submit equipment when it is convenient for the laboratory. It is much easier and efficient to service hundreds of similar items at the same time, than to have a large diversity of equipment to service. Schedule the phases of incoming work on a monthly or quarterly basis to ensure alignment with clients needs.

Readiness

Readiness is another factor that impacts efficiency. Properly allocating resources, as previously explained, will increase readiness. Clients do not prefer being informed that calibration services cannot be performed due equipment being out for calibration or at another facility being used to provide service for a different client.

03. Time Management Training

Training employees is a task that must be routine and redundant to be effective. Most employers facilitate training programs that primarily focus on job-related knowledge and skills. It is not common for employers to place an importance on time management as a skill. However, training employees to manage their time effectively can have a significant impact on efficiency.

Observe the actions of employees in their work environment and evaluate their level of productivity and quality. Identify which employees are top performers. These employees are the key factor that will influence a training program where the focus is time-management as method to improve efficiency. By observing the actions and feedback of top performers, their knowledge can be utilized to train others to perform tasks in a similar manner. Remember, repeatable and reproducible actions will improve efficiency and quality.

Imagine a laboratory where every employee is a top performer. Too many times, managers allow their workforce to become complacent and autonomous. When each employee operates their own independent program, efficiency is non-existent and quality is not controlled. Take the time to incorporate time management training and set goals. It will benefit the organization as a whole.

Businesses, no matter the composition, are machines intended to generate revenue. A more efficient machine will be more productive and more profitable. All employees must perform at a similar level to increase the efficiency of the system on a holistic level; sub-optimization will only create additional problems.

Management is a science. It is management’s responsibility to ensure that their employees are performing at an optimum level to benefit the organization and the clients it serves. When management fails to seek constant improvement, they are not managing effectively. Traits are typically transferrable from one skill to another. If a manager is not effectively managing time, then they are most likely not effectively managing cost and quality either.

About the Author

Richard Hogan

Richard Hogan is the CEO of ISO Budgets, L.L.C., a U.S.-based consulting and data analysis firm. Services include measurement consulting, data analysis, uncertainty budgets, and control charts. Richard is a systems engineer who has laboratory management and quality control experience in the Metrology industry. He specializes in uncertainty analysis, industrial statistics, and process optimization. Richard holds a Masters degree in Engineering from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Connect with Richard on Google+ and LinkedIn.

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