January 2015
Volume 6, Issue 1

Five Skills to Create a Lean Laboratory

Fatten up your bottom line with this approach

By Bob Yenkner

Lean-thinking people make a Lean laboratory. Sounds simple, right? It is if you focus on developing just five basic skills in your employees.

All the desired goals of a Lean laboratory (eg, reduced waste, faster cycle time, lower costs per unit, more consistent quality, better skills) can be achieved only through its people. To become a Lean business, the skills must be acquired to respond to constant changes in demand, to shifting technology and markets, and to the competitive businesses down the road. Unfortunately, the employees who need to develop the five skills are often the same ones who have been doing things the old way (for a long time) and probably have a vested interest in continuing to do so. Anyone who has tried to implement change in a laboratory knows that getting technicians to change may be a huge undertaking.

Skill 1. Customer Awareness

Lean thinking starts with understanding the customer perspective regarding value. Many working in the laboratory know the customers’ names, and usually whether they are good customers or problematic ones. But beyond that basic information, the average technician may not understand the customer’s definition of value. Typically, the average technician does not really know what the customer wants and expects, except for what is written on the prescription. This invariably adds waste to the work performed in the form of extra processing, remakes, and waiting (for approval or QC). Lean laboratories keep in touch with the customer, identify barriers to customer satisfaction, and work to eliminate the barriers.

Skill 2. Focus On the Process, Not the Person

Lean laboratories think in terms of the process, not just the individual when they try to optimize productivity. If something goes wrong or they miss a goal, they look at the process that created the waste, not the individuals involved. We often talk (proudly) about the amount of QC that occurs in our process steps, yet numerous studies have shown that 100% inspection is only 95% effective in finding an error. A Lean-thinking business quickly recognizes that if the process is robust (incapable of producing a mistake), then the need for 100% QC is eliminated. Value-stream mapping plays a large role in fostering a process focus. A value-stream map will clearly show how the individual steps (and the inherent benefits or problems) work together to create value for the customer.

Skill 3. Adaptive Thinking

Technological and social changes are a constant pressure and should be expected in any business. How you react to change today is a measure of how you will succeed in the future. Lean businesses recognize the need for change and adapt to those changes so they may execute faster than before. Management should know how to overcome resistance and help employees overcome their fears of the change so a productive environment can be sustained. As our environment changes, a direct impact on roles and responsibilities will occur.

Skill 4. Using People Brainpower

One of the biggest wastes in any laboratory is poor productivity. A production operation cannot afford to have people sitting around or working inefficiently. Lean businesses identify waste in work areas, and take the initiative to maximize productivity by using any number of tools from the Lean toolbox. If a better way to perform a task, minimize errors, solve a problem, or reduce the cost of a process is feasible, employees need to be empowered to take action. As the Lean laboratory equips its people to eliminate waste, creativity becomes a critical skill. Fostering this requires developing the ability to analyze problems and apply critical thinking to understand the issues. Once the facts are understood, creative solutions to the problems can be developed.

Skill 5. Collaboration/Teamwork

Collaboration between individuals and departments is a vital component to a Lean laboratory and its strategy for improvement. Individuals incorporating Lean principles need to learn how to be team players and how to function cohesively for maximum success. Perhaps one of the toughest things for business owners is to delegate some decision-making authority to the employees. The owners and managers have to address such issues as how much authority the group will have, how the group will be measured (and rewarded), and how the group will manage if and when the ideas are not viable from a business perspective. This is critical if true collaboration is to be a viable skill in the laboratory.

Lean thinking makes a Lean laboratory. Learning these five basic skills will provide a very functional foundation on which to build the necessary skills to sustain a Lean laboratory. As these skills are acquired, the old ways of operating the business will diminish in favor of a more responsive and productive business.

Bob Yenkner is the owner of Practical Process Improvement (PPI) in Higganum, CT.

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