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Identifying Your Lab's Operational Gaps

How to prioritize and improve inefficiencies with personnel, timeliness, quality, and cost

Paula McDaniel, PhD

Paula McDaniel, PhD, spent 23 years in corporate analytical and product development groups at Air Products after receiving her PhD in Physical Chemistry (University of Illinois, 1988). In 2011, she...

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Improving your team’s operational effectiveness can feel like an overwhelming proposition.  Defining gaps, creating solutions, and implementing fixes that stick are steps in the process, but where to start is a common issue lab managers face. By following a process to prioritize most impactful areas, you will ensure alignment with your customer’s priorities, resulting in a customer-focused organization that is adaptable, engaged, and valued.

The foundation—identifying business priorities

Your organization’s effectiveness (cost, quality, timeliness) is judged by how your lab team delivers in alignment with broader company goals and initiatives. Ensuring you clearly understand your customer needs is a critical first step. A clear picture of voice of the customer (VOC) is the basis upon which you identify and prioritize focus areas for improvement.

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Depending on your organization’s mission (service, research, development, contract), customers will be found in R&D, business, manufacturing, product management functions, or external to your company. Individuals in customer management and direct partnership roles should be on your interview list to get both strategic and specific input.

Use a combination of customer survey or input types (email, in-person, video/conference call), to establish needs in terms of skill set, delivery metrics (timeliness, capacity), output format (data/report type, presentations) and key project delivery dates (near- and longer-term). Use a common list of questions to facilitate data consolidation and analysis. As part of your conversation, share their organization’s utilization metrics from the last year.  Include capability, skill type, and personnel usage so you can get directional information. These customer interactions are important relationship developers and can create a sense of co-ownership for your team’s success.

Prior to your customer interviews, gather input from your lab team on perceived needs, issues, and priorities. This will help uncover misalignments between your team and their customers and will provide important data relating to change management when implementing solutions. In addition, don’t overlook the perspective of your manager and the previous lab manager on gaps and hurdles they faced when implementing changes.

Gap prioritization

Avoid being overwhelmed by the wealth of VOC when deciding where to begin. Consolidating and prioritizing the input will ensure you focus on issues that have the biggest impact on your organization’s success. Although we want to jump to solution phase, use a simple grouping procedure to prioritize the gaps, making the process more manageable and fruitful. 

A basic 2x2 grid is a common tool designed to help make hard choices. By plotting urgency (high or low) versus importance (high or low) on the two axes, the priorities will become clear. Issues that fall in the high/high category should be tackled first, followed by high importance/low urgency items, and low importance/high urgency. Issues falling into the low/low category should be set aside but revisited as assumptions change.

Prioritization grid
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Aspects such as timing and organizational approval processes can influence where some gaps fall. For example, if an employee’s medical leave starts on a known date or capital acquisition requires a lengthy approval/delivery time, their priorities might have an elevated urgency because of the upfront activities needed. Also, some gaps might reflect a specific function or capability, so they can be tackled in a more focused fashion.

Solution sorting

After prioritization, develop solutions and an implementation plan. Ensure you throw a broad net to gather ideas (employees, management, and customers). This aids with buy-in and will facilitate change management during implementation. In addition, clarify any solution spaces that are off-limits to focus the effort. For example, budgetary constraints might limit headcount growth.

In a technical organization, gaps can be grouped into personnel, timeliness, quality, and cost buckets. Although some gaps can have obvious solutions, some ideas to consider are outlined below to add to your arsenal as you decide on the best solutions for your team. 

Personnel gaps are often related to skill development in technical areas. Strategies for skill gap filling around technical expertise and capacity can be addressed using a combination of personnel development, new/temporary hires, and temporary/permanent outsourcing. Timeline and skillset needed for the defined gap will narrow viable options for you to consider. Think outside the box by exploring in-company outsourcing options by transferring activities to customer groups or re-negotiate output types to create more capacity within your team. 

Personnel growth in non-technical areas such as communication and leadership development can help employee advancement and reflect alignment and understanding of the corporation’s goals. Communication skills, reflected in a presentation, document, or report should be level-appropriate for the specific audience. Coach your team and use a variety of venues (training, safety/business meetings, lab tours, technical team meetings, external conferences) to help to them refine their written and verbal v skills. Strength in this area can open opportunities in other parts of the company, such as management and external facing roles.

Improving timeliness is a common goal but adding staff or investing in capital might not be feasible. Other options include temporary employee utilization, third-party partnerships, creating turnaround time categories (don’t apply the same standard to all requests) or simply stop doing certain work. Customer partnership in this area is particularly important in weighing pluses and minuses. In terms of capital capacity improvements, today’s vendors are often amenable to renting or leasing, but also evaluate modest capital modifications/accessories such as automated sample changes or prep stations that can defer long-term staff commitments. 

Your team’s ability to meet project timelines can also reflect a need to revisit the assumptions made about your customer requirements. If your team is a service organization, upgrade your reporting approach by using templates, modifying interpretation level or create automated calculation tools to make your operation more efficient. Also, using a laboratory information management system can help your team stay on top of their activities and help you redirect projects that have gone awry.

Timeliness issues can also reflect customer goal misunderstanding. Create project manager or business liaison roles for team members. Their immersion in the business will ensure understanding of overall priorities, changing timelines, and ability to redirect your team’s resources accordingly. This can reduce complaints and increase overall customer satisfaction in addition to providing key growth opportunities for your future leaders. 

Addressing people, capital, and timeliness issues will also impact quality. Consider adapting key elements such as method/procedure documentation and training, improved instrumental operational readiness, and performance validation to your labs. Many labs require formal quality systems such as ISO 9001, ISO 17025, or operation under cGMP. If yours does not, borrow key tenants from these to move your lab forward.

Your organizational cost structure is a fundamental aspect of the solutions described above. Take some time to educate yourself on the meaning of fixed costs, variable costs, revenue flow, and more as you explore ways to improve your team’s value proposition. 

Implementation and beyond

For some final pieces of advice: Don’t overwhelm your team with too many special projects that compete with their day job. It is better to work on a few high priority projects in a timely fashion. Communicate, communicate, communicate, with both your team (build the case) and your customers (for buy-in and priority input). Thank everyone for their role in making the team more adaptable, engaged, and valued. 

This process never ends. New needs will appear, strategic changes will occur, people will leave, and equipment will fail. But with a good foundation, a lab manager can help the group tackle these inevitable changes.

Paula McDaniel, PhD, is a retired business development director. McDaniel delivered a presentation that expanded upon the topic of resolving operational gaps during the 2022 Lab Manager Leadership Summit. To view the full presentation on demand, click here.