Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Managing Time

In order to increase efficiency, many companies today are under pressure to improve their time management practices.

by Sara Goudarzi
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Effective time management strategies tailored to the task and the team

This is not an easy task, however, due to the workload ebb and flow that’s inherent in laboratory operations. For that reason, upper administration must come up with ways to continually equalize the load and increase a lab’s efficiency using current best practices in time management.

For many managers this means preplanning, effective scheduling, having contingency strategies and gathering regularly to meet the current needs of the lab.

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“Keeping any lab on schedule requires vigilance in time management,” says Michael Ogletree, laboratory manager at Airtech Environmental Services Inc. in Denver. “Any time wasted or not used efficiently will inevitably lead to increases in turnaround time.”

Ogletree’s laboratory specializes in analysis for stationary source emissions testing. Between the Denver lab’s one primary analyst and one part-time tech and the field lab’s four primary test leaders, the team conducts more than 25 standard Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) test methods along with multiple others conducted on site using continuous emissions monitors. The team also performs nonstandard testing for a variety of compounds.

“In our Denver lab, we analyzed over 1,200 samples in 2013, and over 200 typically week-long, on-site sampling projects,” Ogletree says. “In addition, we provided analytical support to our field labs through preparation of various reagents, sampling media and standards prep.”

With such high throughput, time management can be tough, especially during busy seasons.

“Keeping track of samples coming in and [deciding] how to prioritize them has been very important,” explains Ogletree. “We have several project managers (PMs) that manage the field test leaders, with whom I work closely to keep track of which samples will be coming back on a weekly basis. I send out weekly updates to the PMs, with estimated dates as to when each set of samples will be completed. This gives them a chance to communicate with our clients as to when they will be receiving project reports.”

Flexibility in time management

Each manager finds his or her own methods to optimize keeping track of the ongoing and anticipated jobs and of the time necessary to complete corresponding lab work.

“I meet with my team weekly to determine work for the next week,” says Amie Sluiter, research scientist and research section supervisor at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) National Bioenergy Center in Golden, CO. “This allows me to prioritize samples and ensure that everyone has a balanced workload every week.”

Sluiter’s lab staff analyzes materials for biofuels production. Much of their investigation is aimed at improving methods or research to characterize new products or processes. They use NREL laboratory analytical procedures, industry standard methods utilized worldwide in the biofuels industry.

Her team characterizes everything, from the starting material to intermediates to final products, and provides feedback to the process engineers to let them know if their experiments were successful.

“With the data we produce, they can often tell exactly where in the process something went wrong,” she says. “We also contract with outside clients in industry and academia to develop new methods for novel feedstock and optimize biofuels production. We develop and validate rapid methods for in-line and at-line characterization as well.”

Sluiter and her team of 12 scientists and technicians perform hundreds of analyses each year. The team is housed in two buildings and works on at least 20 projects at a time. Sluiter’s method of time management is to allow each team member to evaluate their own schedule and abilities and to work within that frame.

“I encourage them to stay comfortably busy, and if they find that they are overwhelmed or underworked, they come and let me know and I find work for them,” she says.

“As long as folks are getting deadlines met, working with colleagues pleasantly, and producing high-quality data, I leave them alone,” Sluiter adds. “However, it is critical that you have an open-door policy if they get overwhelmed or something goes awry.”

Julie Hill, vice president, chemistry, of the National Food Lab (NFL) in Livermore, CA, also believes in flexibility when it comes to time management. As a consulting and testing firm providing creative, practical and sciencebased insights to solve food safety, quality and product and process development challenges for food and beverage companies, being adaptable allows for the variability that comes with different projects and deadlines.

“We don’t have specific practices employed across the laboratory,” she says. “We set safety, quality and client service goals including efficiency objectives.”

“Each individual develops their own practices that work for them,” Hill adds. “Many of our staff can work on several projects at one time, and others work more efficiently completing one task and then moving on to the next.”

Flexibility within her lab, however, does not mean that Hill forgoes best practices in time management. She uses Lean Lab and Six Sigma— both practices used for improving processes and increasing efficiency.

“Like many companies today, the pressure is on to increase our efficiency and practice effective time management,” Hill says. “One of the unique characteristics of our chemistry team is they are a very cohesive group. Many of our chemists have worked at the NFL for 10-plus years, and a few of our staff have been with us for over 20 years. With that kind of longevity and experience comes an innate ability to mentor our junior staff as well as help direct work flow and quickly manage problems that might crop up in a day.”

“It works for us to allow each individual to develop his or her own time management best practices to meet the end goal,” she adds. “Our chemistry supervisors and managers do coach our staff and offer techniques such as preplanning your day, prioritizing your ‘to do’ list, and eliminating wasteful activities.”

Time management tools

Even within the most flexible of frameworks, managers use different tools to track work, progress and schedules. Although the tools might be different, the idea is generally the same.

Airtech’s Ogletree uses Excel spreadsheets as a primary means of scheduling.

“We have one master Excel spreadsheet with field jobs; [this] is used to communicate jobs going—which week, assigned personnel, test methods, location, etc.,” he says. “In addition, we have a lab-specific spreadsheet that tracks which samples we have in house, the scheduled turnaround time, [and things like] when they were received.”

“I refer to both the master field spreadsheet as well as the internal lab spreadsheet constantly,” Ogletree adds.

This management method is especially helpful as his lab has grown significantly in the past few years and the workload has more than doubled.

“It hasn’t had a significant impact on how we manage our time, but rather, we have had to become much more diligent about keeping our spreadsheets up to date and simultaneously working on multiple projects at once to be able to maximize our analytical time,” Ogletree says.

Others, like Hill at the NFL, use a laboratory information management system (LIMS)—software specifically designed to support a lab’s functions and workflow. Using LIMS, she and others in management positions assign due dates to each project. However, in keeping with her philosophy of flexibility and autonomy when it comes to scheduling, she allows each staff member to set their schedule and to work as a team and meet these deadlines.

“This may seem like an idealistic strategy, but it works for us,” she says. “Our team knows what the project deadlines are, and they schedule their work flow appropriately to get their work done.”

NREL’s Sluiter, on the other hand, uses two systems to manage workloads. The first is a time tracker, which the staff fills out weekly for the upcoming week. This allows Sluiter to be aware of how much time each staff member has available and if they’re working on high-priority samples. It also allows her to know if anyone is available for overtime in the case of unexpected incoming work.

“In trying to get everyone to fill out the workload sheet for the next week, I first tried candy,” she says. “Anyone who did not fill it out got a ‘Snickers of Shame.’ That didn’t work—they offered to go back and erase their week just to get some candy—so I finally told them that whoever did not fill out the sheet would get the worst dirty, boring work I could come up with. That worked like a charm.”

She and her team also have a system that tracks every analysis for every sample set. The analyses are assigned a tracking number. Once an analysis is finished, the technician sends it in for quality assurance/quality control and records in the system the date it was submitted. After the data is approved and sent to the client, the reviewer records the date delivered. To ensure excellent customer service, the review takes a maximum of five working days.

Additionally, Sluiter and her staff schedule time on their heavily used instruments online, so that multiple groups can easily share equipment.

Uninterrupted time and task rotation

When organizations experience a high volume of work, uninterrupted time becomes an important asset. This allows staff members to familiarize themselves with a task and continue working on it without stopping and repeatedly having to spend extra time becoming reacquainted with procedures.

“Many of the tests are time sensitive, and I have found that constant shifting or interruptions make people in the lab less efficient and [more] unhappy,” says Sluiter. “They like to be able to anticipate their day.”

Additionally, many test methods require sample prep prior to analyses, which can be performed only when there’s uninterrupted time available.

“There are samples, however, that have an involved prep followed by an extended evaporation time, such as EPA Method 202 for condensable particulate matter,” says Ogletree.

In such cases, staff members can take that time and start another task, instead of waiting. For that reason, it’s good to have lab staff rotate tasks when necessary.

Once the techs are well versed in the methods, says Ogletree, “running multiple instruments or analyzers at once leads to the most productivity. Frequently there is some instrumental run time that allows for some other activity, such as running a second instrument, prepping for outgoing instruments or reagents, etc.”

Rotating tasks can also be beneficial in keeping the staff engaged and interested, which in turn can increase productivity.

“My team is in a research environment because they like research,” Sluiter says. “I find that if they get stuck with one task all the time… they get bored, and their work slows, and they do not get to connect to the projects like I would like them to. The more they understand about a project, the more they are primed to offer important ideas or make observations in the lab.”

No matter the method, managers believe that everyone needs a way of organizing tasks to stay on track.

“I feel like the most important tip in the management of time is to complete tasks as soon as possible even when things are not busy,” says Ogletree. “It can be difficult at times to predict what will be coming in, and getting behind on analysis is the last thing you want.”