Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Engaging Your Service Partner

A strong partnership between a supplier and a lab is necessary in order for the lab to remain competitive. It is important to build that strong foundation early in the relationship, as this creates a critical path free of obstacles.

by Joachim Joerger
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Let Suppliers Contribute to Your Success Through Mutual Process Improvement and Organizational Learning

Automation is becoming more common in research labs due to its benefits: less manual intervention results in standardization and reliability. Although these benefits have their merits, the root cause of today’s automation hype is increased competition in all markets. Very tight project budgets, low reimbursement rates, and increased commoditization of formerly sophisticated molecular biological process (i.e., many more companies offering molecular testing services) drive project groups and companies to strengthen their competitive position. Automation is one of the tools that enable companies to outperform their competition.

One of the initial activities required to manage a lab is identifying the critical path of the lab’s applications. In a laboratory, the critical path is the sequence of sample preparation and handling activities that ultimately leads to the desired result: a set of experimental data or a diagnostic output. The ability to actively manage this critical path is the foundation for gaining competitive advantage. When lab managers want to take their automation to the next level to optimize the application, they want to know that they have a partner to call on to help ensure that the critical path runs smoothly.

Lab managers must have two key objectives in order to successfully manage the critical path:

1. Maintain & constantly ensure the quality of results.
Regulatory bodies request that laboratories ensure that their applications are robust, reliable, and reproducible for the sake of the quality of the results. Managers strive to meet these obligations as part of actively supervising the critical path.

2. Maximize profitability/project efficiency.
This objective includes productivity management of the validated application. Productivity management covers the active assessment and improvement of processes as well as the identification of alternative methodologies, technological advancements, and supply chain gaps.

Whatever the manager’s particular focus is in the arena of molecular testing, he or she will most likely have these two objectives in mind. These are also the areas where your service partner should be able to provide assistance. Team up with suppliers that play a strategic role within your critical path, and allow them to contribute to your success through mutual process improvement and organizational learning. In essence, let them provide you with the customer service you deserve.

Trends in service

Great customer service is about developing a true business partnership between a company and a supplier with strategic value. The arrangement is usually long term in nature and addresses not only the buying of parts, products, or services, but also the advance of process design, regulatory support, and mutual learning.

Developing a partnership depends on trust and mutual understanding. Partners share their ideas and requirements on an operational level. Discussions are conducted on the basis of techniques and methodologies, with both partners freely deciding how much information they disclose.

It is suggested that the partnership be focused on three key topics: maximizing productivity of routine operations, supporting quality management topics, and engaging in a learning community.

Maximum productivity

An imperfect process or work routine is a time killer and cost generator for any organization. This is true for both suppliers and users. A continuous exchange of process data, material demand forecasts, and other information benefits both the lab and the service partner. A basis of trust and a clear commitment to development helps both partners identify deficits. Gaining knowledge of obstacles as they occur enables the supplier to more quickly provide recommendations for process improvements. Annual reviews that include a fair exchange of knowledge regarding business requirements help build and strengthen the framework for partnership.

Immediate support

Potential for error exists in any type of operation. Lab managers must be prepared to manage those interruptions to the routine, while suppliers must be ready to provide convenient, timely assistance. In order to manage the critical path of applications, lab managers demand adequate problem resolution in order to manage downtime. Quick response on the part of the supplier allows the lab to keep operating, ensuring maximum productivity and profitability.

True partnership takes immediate support to the next level. Managers and suppliers must be aware of the actual costs and impacts of potential downtime. Since downtime is the most crucial aspect of the critical path, resolution strategies should be jointly agreed upon by both parties. In this context, a lab manager should consider how to position his or her own resources and structures to help mitigate errors. Training superior users and engaging the company’s technical units are proven ways to find quick solutions.

It is important that lab managers check with their service partners to make sure service is provided in alignment with their business hours for phone and on-site support. Optimal support comes from trained specialists rather than a switchboard or “quick fix” functions. This allows questions to be addressed during the first call. Well-structured self-service web resources further support immediate resolution.

With so many labs being part of worldwide networks, it is important to know that service partners can be called upon to provide support globally in order to maintain the flow of the critical path. Great service also should come with a team of field specialists who understand a lab’s systems and the applications it performs. These specialists need to know how to maintain current applications and how to take them to the next level to enhance productivity and profitability.

Supply chain management

Lab productivity is driven, in large part, by the availability of materials. It is imperative to ensure a continuous supply of materials. Lab managers count on their suppliers to deliver ordered materials of the highest quality, in the right amount, at the right time, and to the right place. In particular, if a lab depends on the availability of one critical material, it is advisable to actively influence that material’s availability. Sharing forecasts with suppliers allows a company to generate more precise production forecasts, resulting in a high probability that the requested product will be available when needed.

In a time of limited budgets, procurement is becoming a strategic function for companies focused on managing available capital and reducing overall spending. E-commerce solutions have become the first choice for reducing costs and workload. Modern integrated e-commerce solutions are helping to cut transactional costs by up to 80 percent through intervention-free ordering and paperless invoicing. Service partners can provide central procurement portals. They also have competent personnel who can discuss integrating into an existing procurement system or help an organization engage in e-procurement activities.

The learning community

In an age when information doubles every five years, it is extremely difficult to stay current on all the latest trends. Service providers have a natural tendency to survey the market for the latest trends in order to prepare for the next product and remain innovative. These partners are willing to share this information with their customers in exchange for feedback about the relevance of the technology or methodology in the context of a customer’s business or application. The ideal supplier is engaged in constant exchange, offering knowledge through well-structured and meaningful web pages, seminars, customer focus groups, and customer education classes. Through this process, end users can take in information quickly, gain experience, and generate knowledge that enables them to innovate and remain ahead of the competition. For example, lab managers should look for partners whose application services and training programs provide the freedom and flexibility to adapt critical path applications to specific or changing research needs. Continuous development of the lab team enables process knowledge sharing, with the added benefit of providing proof documents for labs with compliance requirements.

Quality management support

At the end of the day, managers want to know that they are working with a partner that understands the lab’s business needs/challenges/environment right from the beginning of the relationship. Service partners should be able to assist with equipment selection, operating principles, and performance characteristics. They also should be able to support their partners with validation and qualification procedures. The records from this process will define success by documenting operating parameters compared to supplier specifications, ensuring accurate performance.

In particular, labs with limited experience in quality management and regulatory compliance can greatly benefit from partnerships with their suppliers. Good suppliers work along the guidelines of standards organizations such as ISO. Their expertise can be used to assist in compliance with a variety of regulatory systems in the diagnostic market and the forensics market. Suppliers that understand these market segments as part of their core competency should undoubtedly be able to provide expert knowledge on elements of compliance systems; even this topic is part of their standard product portfolio.

And so the partnership begins…

In order to maximize the benefits of a partnership with a supplier, it is necessary to engage the functions behind the sales organization. The sales team is generally the main point of contact for customers. In many cases, however, salespeople are account managers who act on behalf of the organization. Account managers hold the contacts to other departments within the company, such as service, which can bring added value to their lab partners. A strong partnership between a supplier and a lab is necessary in order for the lab to remain competitive. It is important to build that strong foundation early in the relationship, as this creates a critical path free of obstacles. Maximizing productivity, creating a learning community, and demanding quality management support will keep a lab operational and innovative.