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Improving Processes and Inefficiencies in R&D Labs

How to identify and eliminate bottlenecks in the lab
 

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Jake Haworth

Jake Haworth is the director of research and early development operations at Moderna Therapeutics. Haworth will expand on the topic of lab optimization during a featured presentation at the 2024...

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Adrianne Pittman

Adrianne Pittman is a lab manager based in North Carolina with more than 10 years managing R&D labs. She also serves as the North Carolina Chapter Lead for Lab Ops...

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Lab managers play a crucial role in identifying ways to create and maximize an efficient environment for research and development (R&D) laboratories. The focus of lab operations is to function as the operational arm of the labs so that scientists can devote their time not only to experiments but other research activities such as analyzing data and staying up to date on the latest technologies in their field. This enables “scientists to focus on science.”

Today’s labs are more complex than ever, and it is important for lab managers to identify areas for operational improvement and develop strategies to reduce inefficiencies. Removing the operational burden from bench scientists may seem like a small value add, but a Harvard Business Review study1 found “knowledge workers” with specialty training such as scientists spend 41 percent of their time on activities that do not require their expertise. Once you add up all the time spent on non-research activities such as calling and coordinating with vendors, placing purchasing orders in tedious systems, and repairing sensitive equipment, the missed opportunity of maximizing R&D productivity becomes obvious.

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How to identify bottlenecks in the lab

There are many ways lab managers can identify areas for improvement by first identifying the most significant bottlenecks and pain points that plague the lab. Collecting feedback from scientists about their lab work provides valuable information about their day-to-day challenges. This can be accomplished by sending regularly cadenced surveys to R&D, holding office hours, and asking scientists to highlight operational burdens in team and department meetings. By embedding the operations team in R&D work and using surveys to make data-based decisions on the most inefficient areas, lab managers can better understand what to prioritize in both daily work and long-term operational excellence initiatives. 

One way to help ease scientists into the lab is to create an orientation specifically for lab operations for new scientific staff.

Below are two process implementations we have used in our labs to increase efficiency of scientists: optimizing equipment and onboarding of new scientists. These are two areas that can be inefficient for both scientists and lab managers.

Case study 1: Equipment optimization

R&D labs are highly technical environments with sensitive, specialty equipment. Coordinating efficient use of existing equipment and vetting acquisition of new capital equipment are two key areas where lab managers can make a significant impact on lab operations. Lab managers are often caught in the middle between scientists saying they need more equipment to perform their work, making budget requests for such equipment, and providing leadership with a clear understanding of whether there is capacity on existing instruments or vet if new equipment is needed. 

To coordinate use of existing equipment, there are many scheduling tools lab managers may implement across the R&D organization to coordinate the variety of teams involved. For example, a flow cytometry fleet across multiple teams may not need additional equipment if there is efficient management in a scheduling tool that allows scientists to better plan instrument use and down time for calibrations and maintenance. Biosafety cabinets offer another example where scientists are often concerned about needing to access “their” particular BSC, and about finding another BSC when in need for experimental work. However, efficient use of scheduling tools across teams instead of individual equipment frequently show most fleet equipment is underutilized. 

To audit and support scheduling systems, lab managers may combine this with utilization data that can be provided from power monitors. Power monitors from companies like Elemental Machines, Agilent, or WattIQ provide accurate information of when equipment is consuming higher loads of electricity during experimental runs, outputting a utilization number of how much the instrument is being used during certain timeframes such as company working hours. These data sets allow lab managers to increase efficiency on existing equipment without needing to buy additional equipment. It also allows strategic decision making about what actually needs to be purchased to allow more scientific throughput or enable different modalities of research that existing equipment does not support. 

Case study 2: Streamlined onboarding 

Another initiative that can improve efficiency is decreasing the time between a scientist’s start date and the point where they are able to conduct experiments in the lab. Making this a consistent experience with a clear process and standardized steps can be critical for teams that are rapidly growing and onboarding frequently. 

When lab managers are proactive about streamlining the onboarding process, they can minimize delays for projects and optimize resources on hand.

One way to help ease scientists into the lab is to create an orientation specifically for lab operations for new scientific staff. During this in-person orientation, the Lab Ops team can explain general lab policies and procedures. Providing a dedicated tour of all lab spaces on site allows staff to ask questions and become comfortable with their new work home. According to the Harvard Business Review2, having an organized onboarding process for employees results in a 62 percent increase in productivity for new hires. The valuable communication gathered from these orientation settings can be used to update the orientation and create a strong relationship between new hires and the lab ops team.

Procuring new supplies can be time consuming and costly. According to Happi Labs3, a virtual lab management company, it can take up to four hours per day to source new items for bench work. One way to cut down this time for new scientists is by equipping them with a standardized kit of materials and small equipment for use when they are ready to start experiments at the bench. Typical items in this kit can range from a set of single channel pipettes and mini centrifuge to smaller items like lab scissors and a spray bottle. Instead of having multiple scientists duplicate their effort by purchasing the same items, this kit can divert their energy toward jumpstarting their experiments while saving valuable time and effort that can be better used for research work.

When lab managers are proactive about streamlining the onboarding process, they can minimize delays for projects and optimize resources on hand. When scientists are provided with proper information and supplies at the start of their employment, it helps control costs, creates a culture of efficiency, and contributes to a positive research environment. 

R&D Labs are constantly evolving. Lab managers should always be engaged in continuous improvement activities that have a positive impact on the lab, maximizing the scientists’ ability to perform research that requires their skillset. The broad impact that process improvements have on R&D projects is visible in the boost they provide to the ability of a scientific team to make breakthroughs and create treatments for patients. Lab managers are in a key role to support the long term and daily success of these teams via the pursuit of operational excellence. 

 References:

  1. https://hbr.org/2013/09/make-time-for-the-work-that-matters
  2. https://hbr.org/2018/12/to-retain-new-hires-spend-more-time-onboarding-them
  3. https://www.genengnews.com/insights/six-hidden-biotech-startup-expenses/

Jake Haworth is the director of research and early development operations at Moderna Therapeutics. 

Haworth will expand on the topic of lab optimization during a featured presentation at the 2024 Lab Manager Leadership Summit, April 29-May 1 in Denver, CO. 
 He also serves on the board of directors for Lab Ops Unite, a free, non-profit community for lab ops professionals for networking, mentorship, and conferences. Members share their experiences and recommendations with each other to improve their lab ops, teams, and careers.

Adrianne Pittman is a lab manager based in North Carolina with more than 10 years managing R&D labs. She also serves as the North Carolina Chapter Lead for Lab Ops Unite. She can be reached at apittman98@gmail.com.