The Lean Laboratory
Upgrading from the traditional business template
Lean thinking started in automotive manufacturing in the 1990s, so it has taken a very long time for it to migrate to businesses like dental laboratories. Some believe that the variability of dental prosthetics and the complexity of the production process make it very difficult to adopt lean systems; therefore the time and cost savings could never be realized. It is true that trying to adopt the standard lean system (as used in automotive manufacturing) could cause many problems in the laboratory setting. However, it is also proven that a modified version of the lean system—especially with a thorough understanding of the operations and processes that exist at time of planning and implementation—could be adopted successfully to suit laboratories.
Common Issues in the Traditional Laboratory
It is customary for a traditional laboratory to face challenges due to the various tasks in the fabrication process and the turnaround time required for each of those tasks. Below is a sampling of the most common challenges in today's traditional laboratory that can greatly hinder their ability to produce efficiently and in a timely manner.
In a traditional laboratory, the technicians usually are focused on fabricating high-quality, custom products that can require many production steps handled by many different technicians, with a different production time for each of the tasks. However, most laboratories assign specific tasks to a technician or technicians (eg, trim a die, wax a coping, set up teeth, process a denture, build porcelain, stain and glaze porcelain, etc) without any true oversight on the progress of the individual case through the highly customized task channels, which themselves can be solely dependent on the prosthesis type and the preferences of the individual customer.
Another common challenge is when a technician sets aside certain cases of a specific product type (eg, pressable ceramics, injectable acrylics, etc) or color type until enough work is compiled to constitute an efficient run, which is considered the best use of time and materials to achieve higher productivity.
Traditional laboratories also have to deal with cases that are assigned rush status. Sometimes those cases become so numerous that the laboratory's rush protocol becomes ineffective.
Another problem is inconsistent workload. When the laboratory's daily intake of cases is too high, the turnaround time is immediately impacted. The opposite is true when the laboratory's daily intake of cases is too low; the productivity and efficiency of the team also change relative to income.
Lastly, the work at hand is also another challenge to consider in a traditional laboratory. A lot of time and effort are expended to schedule the work at hand and track each task through completion (ie, tracking, prioritizing, assigning tasks, determining workload, etc). Though very helpful, this work is usually considered non-productive and non-profitable in most laboratories, even those that have adopted technology to accomplish these tasks. The information captured still needs to be analyzed and manual modifications need to be made to correct the deficiencies.
Common Solutions in the Lean Laboratory
To resolve the many common issues addressed above, it is important to take a closer look at lean manufacturing and how a modified version could be adopted successfully to suit laboratories. This requires a through understanding of the operations and processes that exist at the time of planning.
Every task in the lean process is designed to be measured and accounted for, whether it is a value-added or non-value-added task. It is important to note that even "non-value-added" tasks are important. Sometimes it is necessary to perform a non-value-added task to help carry out the value-added task successfully.
So what is lean and how can it be modified to apply to your laboratory?
Measured and controlled manufacturing
Keep in mind that laboratories need to determine value from what their customers deem important. Find out what makes your very best customer tick and what drives their way of thinking. Most customers define value by the following:
• absence of defects in finished product;
• product completion within the agreed-upon turnaround time; and
• consistency in the finished product when handled by different talent, etc.
The first step in the process is to identify and assign a value to each of the tasks, even the non-value-added tasks. Once values are established, the value stream must be defined for each of the tasks. This will help avoid moving "bottleneck" tasks from one position to another, which will interfere with delivering overall improvements.
Visual, organized workplace
An organized workspace has employees, departments, equipment, materials, tools, production, and non-production areas that are clearly defined, labeled, and readily visible. It means that the information required for creating an item is available for every task prior to the start of manufacturing. That information can be communicated back to the appropriate departments and customers when needed, especially if something goes wrong during the process.
The benefits gained by having a visual workspace are what make lean laboratories more cost-effective and efficient than traditional laboratories. Benefits gained by having an organized, visual workplace include:
• reducing wasted labor;
• removing business clutter;
• eliminating duplication of labor efforts;
• standardizing production steps, reducing inconsistencies in the manufacturing processes; and
• configuring production and administrative spaces to help improve workflow.
It is critical to ensure that a case has all that is needed (such as information, technicians, materials, parts, etc) to go through the production steps without stoppage. This will help emphasize the importance of reducing lead time, which in turn opens up some room to assign rush tasks in between steps without interrupting the process.
Another important factor realized by this process is that it allows the same amount of case workloads to be scheduled on a daily basis, leveling the amount of work and type of cases assigned to each individual technician. Leveling the load ultimately improves productivity, which can lead to reduced production costs.
Translated into English, "kaizen" refers to incremental changes rather than large changes. There are solid fundamentals that govern the kaizen system, such as:
• exceptional processes must be applied to attain the best results;
• seeing and investigating a problem personally is necessary to resolve a current challenge;
• data are always important to know, but facts are critical to manage the problem;
• always find the root cause of the problem and resolve it so it does not occur again; and
• the system must be practiced by everyone in the organization in order for it to succeed.
Lean follows a proactive manufacturing approach that helps with predicting potential problems and then developing systems to avoid such problems in the future. Some lean systems in practice today focus only on improving the quality of the final product. Others try to increase the speed of their process speed or improved quality through the reduction of waste. Those like the kaizen system focus on the entire organization, its departments, and the many organizational functions with the goal of improving productivity, staff morale, and laboratory outcomes. A lean laboratory is focused on continuous improvement of all its processes, procedures, and internal structure so that it can deliver consistent results efficiently.
About the Author
Nicolas Azar is a DAMAS consultant, business strategist, executive coach, and founder of Azar Associates in Santa Clarita, California.