Being effective and efficient
Despite technological advances, communication improvements, education levels, and a host of other factors, the majority of laboratories are not very capable of helping themselves improve. Taking on new challenges is not for the faint of heart, and more often than not, improvements take second place to daily fire-fighting.
The success of the laboratory and its employees relies on the ability of owners/managers to recognize the right strategic goals and to guide improvement activities toward long-term success. Owners/managers must be able to recognize what is expected of the organization, seize opportunities, and correct problems before they either damage the organization or lead to closure of the business. Owners/managers have a responsibility to promote a culture of continuous improvement in everything the organization does to ensure customers receive the products or services they require at the right cost and highest quality.
When it comes to managing improvements, the laboratory needs to keep two words in mind to guide their thinking: effective and efficient. To be effective is to do the right things. If you are effective, you will choose the right activities to help your organization achieve its goals and will utilize resources to provide valuable products and services.
To be efficient is to do things in the right way. Efficiency is about how you do the right things so that you minimize wasted resources and maximize the quality of products and services.
Doing the right things in the right way makes good business sense. As Peter Drucker famously observed, "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all."
Before you can see improvements, you will need a plan. There are many approaches to implementing improvements, but they all have a few basic steps in common. Here are five actions to take that will get you moving in the right direction.
What is the objective of the improvement? A clear idea of what the improvement is going to achieve will focus the mind of the team and show that the effort is worthwhile. It answers the question: "What's in it for me?" A defined purpose also links the improvement directly to the customers/stakeholders whom it will benefit. SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-oriented) objectives and planned milestones for the implementation will focus the team on what success will look like. Milestones provide a sense of progress for longer term improvement plans.
Where resources are needed? The project will require labor to perform the improvements, any specialized equipment needs (that you don't have), knowledge of what is currently lacking within your organization, and the materials to support the plan. All should be identified prior to embarking on the improvement effort
What time frame is required? Time (specifically lack thereof), more often than not, is your enemy. Declining sales and profits simply cannot be ignored, both for the immediate future and the longer-term value of the laboratory itself. Identifying root causes and corrective actions will require time to stop the bleeding. However, that has to be tempered with the reality that whatever business you have must be preserved by an employee doing the work, while at the same time implementing improvements.
What measurements are needed? Taking the time to get a sense of the current situation helps assess the size of the task and provides a comparison point to assess the extent of improvement that is achieved. Key performance indicators (your weekly/monthly measures) are required. KPI monitoring should take place throughout the improvement process, signaling the program is on track or that mid-course correction is needed to stay on plan.
What risks/constraints exist? "Murphy's law" claims that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, often at the worst possible moment. Assessing risk is a wise practice so that mitigation plans can be designed and made ready to implement if "Mr. Murphy" were to make an appearance.
Once the improvement is fully realized, the laboratory should take the time to celebrate the successes with the team, reflect on the lessons learned from things that went less well, and then start planning the next phase of improvement.
Implementing improvements takes time and effort but can usually be accomplished on a low-cost/no-cost basis. Remember to keep your plan (objectives, resources, timeframe, measurements, risks) in front of you, involve your employees, and always celebrate your success!
About the Author
Bob Yenkner is the owner of Practical Process Improvement in East Hampton, Connecticut.