Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Vector art of stacks of paper and graphs in a data tunnel
iStock, Maxger and iStock, VectorHot

Beyond Guesswork: Forging a Data-Driven Lab

Effective decisions are data-driven and aligned with broader goals

Ted Palashis

Ted Palashis is president and founder of Overbrook Support Services. He has presented and published nationally on a variety of topics related to the industry, including the history and growth...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Successful laboratory management depends on making educated choices about how lab equipment and instruments are deployed in the lab. A lab’s performance, efficiency, and overall mission rely heavily on utilizing and leveraging its resources as optimally as possible. Lab managers face the critical task of ensuring that the lab’s daily operations align with both its business and science goals and that every asset is used as effectively as possible to optimize the lab’s output and fulfill its mission.

How decision-making has evolved

Before major technological breakthroughs, making laboratory decisions was significantly more challenging. Staff manually compiled metrics, a time-consuming and complex task. Laboratory professionals faced a constant dilemma: should they prioritize efficient laboratory operations or the meticulous collection of data? Despite these challenges, they acknowledged the importance of thorough data collection and analysis.

Get training in Asset Management and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Asset Management Course

During this period, laboratories primarily relied on rudimentary tools such as index cards and slide rules for data management. The advent of computers and interactive data centers, which now seamlessly aggregate and analyze data from many sources, was still a concept of the future.

Manual ledgers stood as the primary method for storing and retrieving laboratory data. While it was the best available at the time, this approach was fraught with the potential for human error, making the decision-making process in laboratories a meticulous and error-prone endeavor.

Effective lab asset management relies not only on the methodology . . . but also the skills, bandwidth, and ability to assimilate the data and optimize the lab's operations and assets.

Now that computers are a ubiquitous tool in every lab, lab managers are empowered to make better-informed decisions in less time. With a robust informatics backbone, all of the data from various avenues is easily accessible and contextualized in a broader landscape of factors affecting the decision. But even with this information at hand, lab managers can only make effective decisions when they have articulated the lab’s business case.

Clarity of the lab’s business case

The laboratory’s success is dependent upon lab ma­­nagement’s operational and scientific alignment with the lab’s business case. This process is more than just an examination; it’s a comprehensive understanding of the lab’s fundamental objectives, operational framework, and the specific markets it serves. This understanding forms the backbone of all strategic decisions in the lab, ensuring that every choice, from equipment procurement to resource allocation, is informed and deliberate and involves a multi-layered approach:

  1. Clarifying the lab’s operational focus: Whether the core function of the lab is centered around production, research and development, quality assurance/quality control, or a combination of these areas, a clear short- and long-term understanding of its mission is crucial in determining if the lab’s current instruments suit the types of analyses and tasks it performs both in the short and long term.
  2. Quantifying the lab’s volume and data turnaround requirements: What is the lab’s workload, and what are the expectations for data delivery response time? Recognizing these parameters helps in effectively scaling operations, managing time-sensitive projects, and setting realistic turnaround times for results.

Optimizing lab equipment utilization

Once the lab’s business case is established, the lab is outfitted, and the lab is in operation, lab managers must optimize equipment utilization, ensuring that the laboratory’s assets are leveraged for maximum productivity. Practical steps lab managers can take to optimize utilization include:

  1. Assessing the lab’s sample volume capacity: Can the lab comfortably manage its expected volume of work, or are there signs of strain on resources? Evaluating the lab’s capacity based on projected volume ensures it operates efficiently without overextending its resources, causing undue stress on instrumentation as well as bench personnel.
  2. Monitoring equipment usage and identifying patterns: What metrics are in place to track utilization, along with how frequently and intensively each asset is used? Gathering and analyzing data on usage allows lab managers to spot trends, identify underutilized equipment, recognize vulnerabilities, and pinpoint potential bottlenecks in the workflow.
  3. Ensuring redundancy and proactive maintenance: How does the lab manage downtime for crucial equipment during routine maintenance or unexpected failures? Having redundancy and scheduling regular maintenance checks are vital strategies to prevent disruptions in lab operations and maintain a smooth and continuous workflow.

Using meaningful metrics to drive decisions

In the complex world of laboratory management, the key to optimizing operations and achieving optimal performance lies in the strategic use of data. By applying data-driven insights, lab managers can transform raw data into actionable intelligence, guiding crucial decisions that shape the laboratory’s productivity and alignment to mission.

The laboratory's success is dependent upon lab management's operational and scientific alignment with the lab's business case.

“Meaningful metrics” in practice:

  1. Analyzing utilization for informed scheduling: In-depth analysis of equipment usage data allows lab managers to organize schedules that maximize efficiency. By understanding how and when equipment is used, managers can minimize idle time, ensure that resources are used where needed, and align equipment availability with the lab’s operational demands. This level of scheduling precision not only provides a maximum return on investment in instrumentation and equipment but also enhances workflow efficiency and overall productivity.
    There are a number of products that exist in the marketplace that enable monitoring of instrumentation with varying technologies that laboratories can consider. 
  1. Scheduling maintenance based on usage data: Consistent and data-informed maintenance schedules are the linchpin of equipment reliability. Lab managers can reliably predict when maintenance is going to be needed before breakdowns occur by tracking how frequently and intensively each instrument requires service as well as its utilization. Part of this process is identifying mission critical assays and instrumentation that is dedicated to those workflows and projects. This proactive approach to care prevents costly and disruptive equipment failures as well as extending the operational lifespan of lab instruments, ensuring that they continue to perform accurately and reliably over time and when critical to perform their function.
  1. Aligning budget with operational requirements: Strategic financial planning is crucial for the ongoing operation, growth, and advancement of any laboratory. Lab management plays a key role in this process. By comprehending the lab’s business needs and analyzing data on equipment usage and performance, management gains valuable insights. These insights help in determining and advocating for a budget to maintain levels of performance required of the laboratory instrumentation. Budgeting as such is based on historical performance as well as predictive assumptions, which are grounded in comprehensive and concrete data. This approach enables realistic cost assumptions as well as effective allocation of funds as they are directed towards investments that meet the lab’s most critical needs, enhance its capabilities, offer the highest return on investment, and minimize downtime of existing instrumentation and equipment. This targeted budgeting strategy ensures that each dollar spent contributes to reducing risk, increasing efficiency, and taking a realistic approach to achieving the scientific mission of the laboratory.

Effective lab asset management relies not only on the methodology and tools available to lab management to make educated decisions, but also the skills, bandwidth, and ability to assimilate the data and optimize the lab’s operations and assets. Lab management must fully understand the lab’s specific objectives and use data intelligently. Lab managers are crucial in coordinating the lab’s equipment and resources to meet operational and scientific objectives, and they must be educated and empowered by comprehensive, meaningful, and accurate data to make sound decisions. Adopting a data-driven strategy enables laboratories to transform into highly efficient environments where scientific exploration and operational excellence are seamlessly integrated.