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Identifying and Addressing Efficiency Gaps in the Lab

Driving change through incremental innovation

Holden Galusha

While innovation is often used as a catch-all term for new technologies or business models, some conceptualize it as four distinct types: disruptive, radical, sustaining, and incremental. Each type is valuable, but incremental innovation—small improvements to a product or service over time—plays a key role in the health of organizations.

To incrementally innovate in the lab successfully, it is important to identify opportunities, incentivize the change for key stakeholders, and have control over the change’s implementation.

Four types of innovation

Disruptive innovation

Disruptive innovation is an advancement that upends an existing market. A disruptive advancement most commonly comes in the form of a new technology that is markedly better than anything else currently available, such as lithium-ion batteries replacing nickel-cadmium batteries. Consequently, the new technology may be adopted en masse and become the new standard. Disruptive innovation doesn’t only manifest as new technology, however. In some cases, it comes in the form of a new business model. Uber and Lyft are prime examples of this. Although ridesharing companies don’t offer any new, tangible product, they upended the taxi industry with a novel approach to offering the service.

The moment you stop improving it, you've initiated its death cycle.

Radical innovation

While disruptive innovation impacts existing markets, radical innovation goes a step further to generate a new market entirely. Examples include the invention of the airplane and imitation meat produced by cell culturing. Radical innovation is almost always the result of a technological advancement.

Sustaining innovation

Sustaining innovation is typically seen when companies significantly change their product or service offering to keep up with changes across the industry. For instance, many publishing companies began offering digital versions of their content with the advent of the internet. If they had remained exclusively print publications, they would have dwindled away until finally closing.

Incremental innovation

Arguably the least flashy of the four, incremental innovation is just as important as the other three types—if not more. This type of innovation is characterized by the small improvements, new features, and streamlined processes that ensure an organization becomes more efficient or a product does not become stale. “Incremental innovation is required to keep any product alive,” says Scott Hanton, PhD, editorial director at Lab Manager and former general manager at Intertek. “The moment you stop improving it, you’ve initiated its death cycle.” Even if a new business is launched through a successful radical innovation, that innovation will not sustain the business’ growth long-term. If the business does not innovate incrementally, they will be left behind as their initial radical innovation is mimicked and improved upon by competitors.

The same holds true for laboratories. Once efforts to optimize processes and produce higher-quality results stop, the lab becomes less effective and its output becomes less impactful. Incremental innovation in the lab allows researchers to accomplish more with the same resources, decrease operational overhead, and optimize processes so that more effort and money goes straight to the bottom line: research.

Identifying opportunities for incremental innovation

When identifying opportunities for incremental innovation in your lab, there are a few areas you can examine that will likely be ripe for improvement. These aspects of the lab are often neglected because they don’t directly benefit the bottom line, so they’re rarely reevaluated after initial implementation. Some of these aspects include inventory management, informatics, and training.

Inventory management

How robust is your lab’s inventory management system? Many labs are held back by inefficient processes and use ill-suited software to manage assets and consumables. By auditing your current processes and migrating to a software platform designed for laboratory inventory management, you can streamline communication, minimize mistakes, and save time.

Informatics

Are you taking full advantage of your lab’s informatics infrastructure? It is possible that useful features in your laboratory information management system (LIMS) are going unused. Take some time to review your LIMS’ documentation for information that can help you extend it. You may be able to eliminate some manual data entry tasks, for instance, which would save time and decrease the margin for error.

Additionally, check if the manufacturers of your instrumentation provide any additional software. Some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) offer monitoring and remote management software that may prove useful to you.

Training

Take some time to evaluate how effectively new hires are onboarded. Are trainees making the same mistakes or asking the same questions? Consider revising your standard operating procedures and training collateral to curb common mistakes and answer questions preemptively.

Incentivizing incremental innovation

As a lab manager, you have authority to incrementally innovate in your lab to an extent. However, to achieve the best possible results, you will need to communicate your vision and its value to both your direct reports and your superiors. Without staff cooperation, the changes you aim to make will never be implemented properly. Similarly, if you cannot convince your superiors of the positive impact these changes will have, you won’t get approval to make them. To maximize the chances of persuading those above and below you in the hierarchy of the lab, you will need to adjust your approach accordingly. The hallmark of effective, persuasive communication is tailoring your message to your audience to address their values and pain points. Because leaders and staff operate at different levels within the organization, they will have different priorities.

Without staff cooperation, the changes you aim to make will never be implemented properly.

Convincing senior leaders

Those in leadership positions prioritize the success of the organization above nearly everything else. They make data-driven decisions, so you will need to bolster your arguments with information to win them over. Focus on how your change will have a quantifiable impact. Use hard numbers, projections, and estimations to illustrate how the change will decrease low-value tasks, save money, or otherwise improve the lab’s footing in the market. The chances of getting an idea greenlit increase if the anticipated results are made tangible.

You may also take a people-centric approach, such as emphasizing how the change will benefit clients. Improving client relations will benefit the organization’s bottom line as well.

Convincing lab staff

Cost versus value is a key concept to guide your approach when managing change with your lab staff. Is the value of the change worth the cost of the time and effort needed to carry it out? The change should only be implemented if you are certain that the value outweighs the cost.

Generally, lab technicians will care most about how your proposed change will affect their day-to-day work; more specifically, will their lives become easier or harder? If it will make their daily routine more convenient, lean into that as the primary selling point and then supplement it with data illustrating how the change will benefit the organization. If the change will make their work more difficult, then emphasizing its necessity to improve the lab overall will be the most persuasive approach.

Additionally, make sure to always encourage your direct reports to share feedback or alternative ideas. Oftentimes the best incremental innovations come from those doing day-to-day lab work because they are the most familiar with the processes.

Innovation requires implementation

It is important to note that your innovation will be limited by the level of control you have over the related processes. “One of the key learnings for me is that, to innovate, you have to implement, which means that you need to have sufficient control over the process to put the change into action,” remarks Hanton. Since you are the one establishing a new vision, you’ll need to have enough autonomy to course-correct and modify things as needed. If you lack the authority to do so, your innovation will never reach fruition. For example, it will be difficult to streamline new equipment purchasing processes if all purchases need executive approval. A key step in the process is out of your control.

With incremental innovation, you can set the stage for other, more impactful innovations to take place. To successfully accomplish this, make a habit of identifying opportunities, successfully communicate your vision, and be open to feedback from your colleagues.