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Managing Your Lab's Resources

Managing Your Lab’s Resources

Expect the unexpected and budget for it

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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To thrive in the current business environment—with substantial fiscal, human, and technical resource constraints along with lurking supply chain questions—laboratory leaders seek to drive growth in their operations via enhanced individual and organizational performance, and optimal resource management.

At a fundamental level, all lab leaders grapple with the management of their most valuable and least abundant resource: time. A recent McKinsey & Company survey of 1,500 executives reported that only nine percent were very satisfied, less than 50 percent were somewhat satisfied, and about 33 percent were actively dissatisfied with how they spent their time. Overall, the McKinsey report notes just more than half of the respondents considered their use of time in step with their organizations’ key priorities.

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Among the key prerequisites for aligning organizational priorities and goals are the availability of staff with adequate skills and training, easy to use software, appropriate mechanisms to share uptime, reliable electronic access to data relevant to internal needs and for reporting to regulatory agencies, says Patrick Martell, director of global services, Waters Corporation (Milford, MA).

Richard Chee-a-Tow, director of laboratory operations, Dynacare (Brampton, Ontario) says, “Typically, at a high level we track key performance indicators (KPIs) on a day-to-day basis. These include turnaround time, quality, and productivity, which is likely the case in most labs.” He says that at a more granular level, “We track equipment costs, both new equipment and ongoing maintenance, materials, research and development, and staff training, among other relevant areas.”

“To ensure that a KPI such as turnaround time is on track, we have to ensure that we have adequate resources, that workflows are optimized, that uptimes are guaranteed by ensuring that vendors are in place to ensure that maintenance is done properly and on schedule,” says Chee-a-Tow. Jean-Francois Dion, senior manager, operations, laboratory sciences at Charles River Laboratories says, “We are keeping track of many KPIs in our laboratories but the most important resource is our people. It is very important to have a precise picture of human resources (HR). Each week we review upcoming vacation schedules, sick leaves, maternity and paternity leaves, etc.” Emphasizing the critical need to ensure that vital laboratory talent are engaged and nurtured, Dion says, “HR management is key in successfully bringing in talented people and keeping them motivated by providing opportunities to acquire new skills and career growth.

“We have a strong training program to make sure that we support the development of new employees. We also try to keep employees cross-trained between different techniques and departments, with the ultimate goal of having the right talent at the right place.”

A number of tools are now readily available for the improvement of resource management. Martell says that one of Waters’ strongest resource management tools is Empower Chromatography Software, which has an embedded database, inherent product data management, analytical tools, and the capacity to accommodate some add-on options that Waters offers to customers. The tool can help to determine system utilization, the number of runs performed on different systems, usage levels of different instrumentation systems, and help to develop maintenance schedules, according to Martell. He says a complimentary Waters tool, Empower Driven Services 365, also provides users with access to critical systems information, help with monitoring utilization, managing resources, identifying training needs, flagging needs for improvements, and help with laying the groundwork for future capital projects. Dion says, “We have a dedicated group specialized in the maintenance and repair of our fleet of instruments. They take care of all the preventive maintenance of all our equipment. Instrumentation in excellent condition is one of the key factors to run the operations of the laboratory smoothly. We also have a dedicated team who is responsible for keeping accurate inventory of our consumables, their availability in all our laboratories, and they control our ordering so they can quickly make adjustments when needed.

“This group is also responsible for all the other reagents used in our laboratories; they communicate backorders with the scientific and technical staff and work with them to identify alternate solutions. They follow the shipments, unpack, identify, and log, keeping our inventory consistently updated. We have thousands of different reagents in our inventory and it is always growing. By the nature of our work, we are always working on developing new techniques and different assays.”

“The key is the communication and collaboration between the scientific staff and the technical staff. We have developed a system that allows all the needs from our scientific staff (around 100 scientists in nine different specialties) to funnel to our team of laboratory specialists,” says Dion. “Unexpected costs usually come from assays that fail and need to be repeated. Some kits and reagents can be very expensive, added to the scientific and technical hours wasted in repeating assays. The supervisor of each area keeps a close eye on the success of each assay within their group, and when a failure occurs, an investigation is done with the analyst who performed the assay and the scientist in charge of the project.” A weekly report is generated with all the information about the investigation, project, assay type, method, cause of failure (reagent issue, technical oversight, scientific oversight, instrumentation failure, etc.), he says. “With all this information in one report, we can identify trends and act rapidly upon them,” says Dion.

Proper control of financial resources is critical. Martell notes that labs generally have capital budgets for expansion or to upgrade their equipment along with their operating budgets, which cover current expenses such as service support, consumables, reagents, solvents, and software—all of which require careful planning and control. This requires labs to track information on their run rate and spending rate and manage accordingly, including the judicious use of outsourcing and using cloud-based systems to manage data of all stripes.

Related Article: Budget Planning

Dion sees budgeting and financial management as challenges that are important in the success of operations. “Budgets need to be forecasted at least a year in advance, including which instruments we will need or need to replace, so it is very important to plan the cost of the validations that will be required prior to implementation.”

Among the key issues to evaluate, Dion cites, “How many people, and what skill set will be required to perform the upcoming work? Do we want people just out of school or with more experience? There are specific periods for that kind of recruiting. What will be the side cost of the recruitment, travel, interview, training, etc.? We try and do as much advanced planning as possible to anticipate all costs that may come up in a year. The more we’re able to plan, the more we are able to stay within our designated budget.”

Offering some pointers on avoiding pitfalls to other lab leaders’ counterparts, Dion says, “The most common pitfalls are a result of miscommunication. Tracking and communicating financial, performance, production, and quality KPIs along with a good vision of your long-term schedule can save you from some pitfalls (e.g. the commitment for a large amount of work to [be accomplished] in a short period of time without confirmation of abilities of operations to deliver on time).

“That can easily happen when you work in silos and it is often the case in big laboratories. There is so much to consider in advance for the success of a project, many different contributors will have to share their expertise, but clear communication between them is key to avoid pitfalls,” says Dion.

Martell says that a number of the labs he interacts with pay close attention to legal questions associated with the protection of intellectual property, ensuring proper compliance protocols in keeping with regulatory requirements. He notes that labs strive to ensure data compliance and integrity, and in the case of clinical and diagnostic labs, they want to ensure that they have clearance for the tests they are conducting and maintain proper assays for regulatory reviews. He says that lab managers always have to be conscious of their investments, and must be aware that this means more than getting systems into the lab. Other key requirements include ensuring that staff and operators are properly trained and the effective standard operating procedures and work processes are in place. “These are essential, and every bit as important as what kind of equipment the lab purchases,” Martell says.

Budgets can be used up quickly without a plan with a horizon of several years, and a firm grasp on questions like “what are we trying to accomplish, what are we trying to get to, what tests and equipment are needed and what are the assays, and what type of backup might be needed,” Martell says.

In the future, Martell sees more connected products. He says today there are backup systems that ensure operations do not stall and undermine productivity when systems go down, noting, however, that is a reactive approach that costs money. “What we are seeing now, and what we are trying to work on and optimize is to turn this into a proactive process so that we and our customers will know when the systems will need attention based on trending information from sensors provided to customers.” He says that the idea is to bring more information via greater integration, “so that no application is an island,” that will drive productivity and growth.

Increasingly, as more software applications reside in the cloud, customers are able to reassess how they invest in and manage software applications. Martell says technology impacts business processes, and is some cases may enable the conversion of items slated for funding via capital budgets into operating expense budgets, which could better align productivity to actual spend.

He says these are the kind of situations where technology is enabling and impacting some of the financial considerations around resource acquisition and management in the labs of some of his organization’s customers today.