Leaning Toward Lean?

Although the basic concepts and techniques of Lean are straightforward, adapting them to a particular lab situation and integrating them into a defined process that uses resources well is quite a challenge.


Applied Properly, Lean Practices Can Deliver Productivity Improvements of Between 25 Percent and 50 Percent

Lean originated in the automotive industry, and it’s easy to see how the tools and concepts are a good fit for that type of manufacturing. What’s much less obvious, however, is how Lean can and should be applied in labs. Recently lean lab projects have become quite common, but …. Is Lean really an appropriate strategy in the lab environment, or are labs just blindly following trends?

The origins of Lean

The term “Lean Manufacturing” was first coined in 1990 by MIT researchers studying the global automotive industry. They used the term (now commonly abbreviated to “Lean”) to describe what they saw in Japanese car plants (especially Toyota’s).

Toyota called its approach the Toyota Production System (or TPS). It was and still is based on “flow and pull” and was more or less the antithesis of the “batch and queue” approach then common in U.S. and European plants.

The Toyota system was mainly developed by Taichii Ohno and Shigeo Shingo. Interestingly, Ohno attributed much of the credit for the Toyota approach to Henry Ford. Ford’s system certainly had flow, but it was built around a single, never-changing product, and it did not cope well with multiple or new products.

Shingo (at Ohno’s suggestion) had worked on reducing Toyota’s setup and changeover times. Rapid setup allowed for small batches and an almost continuous flow (like the original Ford concept), but it allowed a flexibility that Henry Ford thought he did not need. Ohno and Shingo both wrote books that were translated into English in the late eighties when the productivity and quality gains of the Toyota production system became evident to the outside world.

The West began to adopt the principles of the Toyota system under a variety of manufacturing systems such as Just in Time, World Class Manufacturing, Continuous Flow Manufacturing and others. However, it was not until the Lean Manufacturing label came along that it really took off. Abbreviating the label from Lean Manufacturing to simply Lean allowed the philosophy’s transfer to the processing and service industries.

What is Lean anyway?

If you ask people this question, most will answer “waste elimination.” But this is only a partial answer. Toyota identified three primary wasteful practices, one of which is waste (or muda in Japanese). Ohno identified seven separate kinds of muda, and many weaker Lean projects are based solely on reducing or eliminating these. However, the intent of the Toyota Production System and of Lean is to maximize value by minimizing all wasteful practices.

These include the seven muda but also mura (unevenness— volatility) and muri (overburden—overloading of people or equipment).

The significance of mura and muri is often misunderstood and underestimated. Flow, pull and standard work are also key concepts in the Toyota system, but once again these are often poorly understood and inadequately addressed in many Lean projects. There is a simple reason for this. Waste is easily seen and understood, and tools such as value stream mapping help identify lots of waste to work on, whereas levelling and flow are much more difficult to understand and address, particularly in labs. Unfortunately, Lean is a space littered with wellqualified personnel who are poor practitioners.

Eliminating waste from a levelled, flowed lab process instead of at isolated points creates processes that need less human effort, less space and less time to test samples at less cost and with fewer errors and test failures than traditional labs have. Lean labs are also able to respond to changing customer priorities with fast throughput times.

Labs are different

Labs are not the same as manufacturing environments. Listed below are a few of the differentiating factors in labs:

  • Workload and mix can be volatile; i.e., the mix and volume of samples often varies significantly, day to day and week to week.
  • A complex mix of routine and non-routine testing, other tasks and project work all share the same resources.
  • There is often a significant additional GMP/GLP compliance burden.
  • For many tests the effort required to set up a test is significant compared to the sample run time—this makes “one piece flow” unfeasible and some grouping of samples essential.
  • Typically, analyst travel time (to gather materials, etc.) is a much smaller proportion of the overall task time than it is in manufacturing. This means that the ‘”movement” waste is less significant, and lean tools such as “spaghetti diagrams” and 5S are less important.
  • Typically, analyst travel time (to gather materials, etc.) is a much smaller proportion of the overall task time than it is in manufacturing. This means that the ‘”movement” waste is less significant, and lean tools such as “spaghetti diagrams” and 5S are less important.
  • Individual daily roles usually have a higher degree of variety and complexity.
  • Many standard lean tools such as line balance charts, value stream mapping, takt time, etc., work differently in the lab (if at all).

The core principles of Lean still apply, but a generic approach using a standard tool kit will struggle in the lab.

Applying Lean in the lab

Although the basic concepts and techniques of Lean are straightforward, adapting them to a particular lab situation and integrating them into a defined process that uses resources well (and is simple to manage) is quite a challenge.

Levelling and flow

In labs (and elsewhere) there is a link between levelling and flow. You cannot flow samples through a lab unless the short interval workload is level, and you generally can’t level volatile workloads unless you flow the samples.

In most labs, short-term volatility in overall workload is imported directly into the testing process. This causes low productivity during troughs and poor lead time performance during peaks. Very often the capacity of the lab is not well understood, and no mechanism exists to level the workload.

Levelling a volatile workload or mix is perhaps the single most valuable thing that can be done when leaning a lab—it enables flow that changes how a lab operates and performs and it significantly reduces “fire fighting.”

The simplest levelling strategy is to create the ability to process samples at the “levelled demand rate” quickly by developing repeating sequences of testing that move the samples through all the required tests and reviews quickly. These sequences must be designed to meet the overall laboratory workload and to achieve the lead times required by the business. Once the process is started, samples do not queue between tests, and this significantly reduces the throughput time. The difference between the new, reduced throughput time and the lead time required by the business is used to allow samples to be held in an incoming levelling queue until released into the lab as part of a levelled daily or weekly workload.

While in the levelling queue, samples can be prioritized or reprioritized according to customer requirement using a system of “must-start dates.” But when released into the lab as part of a level daily workload, they are processed in FIFO order. To make this approach simple to manage and to control, Heijunka devices such as “rhythm wheels” or “test trains” can be developed.

However, there are many other levelling strategies. Every lab is a unique combination of workload, volatility, lead time, equipment, people and tests, and the exact nature and detail of levelling and flow solutions can and will vary from lab to lab.

Note: In real lab situations it’s usually necessary to level the mix of sample types as well as the overall workload, and the repeating of test sequences and levelling queues are designed based on work content rather than on sample numbers.

Successfully levelling a volatile workload will deliver significantly greater benefits than waste elimination alone. However, because the relationship between levelling and flow is not intuitive and often not well understood, flow is simply ignored in many lean lab projects

Standard work

Some analysts are naturally good “time and task” managers and will organize and sequence their work in a logical and productive manner. However, many are not. A standard work approach can be used to develop repeatable analyst roles. This will improve the operation of a rhythm wheel or train and reduce errors and failures. Also, because standard work combines tasks and uses people’s time well, it delivers a significant productivity gain in itself. In order for a standard work approach to be effective:

  • Design standard roles that make good use of resources
      -Define the combination and sequencing of tasks based on people who are productive because they organize their work well, rather than because they move fast.
  • Do a design on paper with a team, then try, refine and deploy
      -Involve analysts in an iterative process to design productive roles that meet the requirements of your train or rhythm wheel.

Performance management/short interval control

Structured performance management processes, including definition of suitable metrics and daily review huddles, are essential for sustainability of lean processes. In most laboratories, only lead time and the investigations rate are measured. Lab productivity is often ignored because it is perceived as difficult to understand and measure. Overall lab performance and performance trends are often not communicated well to the individual analysts.

Operational performance (versus a predefined sequence of testing) should be reviewed at least daily as part of a short team huddle held in front of a performance white board.


If a lean lab project is to be successful and delivered within a reasonable time frame, it is necessary to resource it properly. This should include significant senior management support and/or the use of external consultants with a relevant track record and excellent project management skills. Obviously this costs money, and a clear ROI (return on investment) goal and measurable project objectives should be established prior to embarking on a full project.


When Lean is applied properly in labs, productivity improvements of between 25 percent and 50 percent and/or lead-time reductions of 80 percent are not unusual. Other benefits include:

  • Consistent predictable performance
  • Reduced levels of WIP and inventory
  • Greater empowerment of laboratory personnel
  • A culture of proactive performance management and continuous improvement
  • Improved customer service levels


Laboratories are not the same as manufacturing environments. But Lean can and should be applied to labs. A generic approach will not work, but careful application of the techniques based on a thorough understanding of lab processes will deliver significant benefits in terms of cost or speed or both. While most of the key principles of Lean apply, many unique challenges are involved in effectively implementing them in laboratories.

BSM is a leading life science “Lean and Operational Excellence” consulting company with offices in the United States, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Visit www.bsm-usa.com to learn more.

Published In

Global Management Magazine Issue Cover
Global Management

Published: July 1, 2010

Cover Story

Global Management

Forming and managing effective global research teams with members located in far-flung countries and different time zones is a major challenge for lab managers at multinational companies and at companies outsourcing lab work overseas.