Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Run Your Lab Like A Business

When looking at best practices for running a lab, things as seemingly diverse as staff development and retention, inventory management, procurement, and efficient use of training spends, need to be looked at together. After all, equipment is only as good as the staff who uses it and your staff is only as good as their training.

by Michael Bosch,Nanny Bosch
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A People, Process, & Technology Perspective

Conceptualizing ideal state conditions

Looking at your lab, you see what it currently is. But a savvy manager also sees what it could be. This desire to improve operations exists whether you’re managing a production lab cranking out samples at a high rate, or a research lab creating protocols and results within tight timeframes. Both situations require an examination of each laboratory’s operations in as comprehensive a way as practical. How does a lab manager do that? Start with your future ideal state in mind, enhance that with an honest assessment of current conditions, unaddressed and new business needs, and high-level improvement opportunities, and then build a framework around that.

Notice we said a “framework” for the ideal state. If you alone conceptualize an ideal state, you miss the opportunity to engage your team in the process. If they flesh out the framework, you not only gain fresh perspectives, but also team ownership of the changes that will happen. Your most important job as lab manager in this paradigm is coordination and communication.

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But as lab manager, you are also a vision manager, which requires that you look at your business goals from the end backwards as well as from a macro perspective. If you begin at the micro level, it’s very difficult to build up to the macro level. Thus, you’re not going to ask point-level questions such as “what is the next instrument we should purchase?” or “how many people do we need in extractions?” Instead, imagine what the ideal state looks like for procurement and staffing, and then think about how to find the dollars to make it happen. Looking at end deliverables at the beginning makes other, more discrete, questions easier to answer.

Broad stakeholder inclusion

In addition to being a lab manager, you’re also managing people—individuals and groups with various and interdependent skillsets. To borrow a term from project management, you have now become a “stakeholder manager.” As soon as you start thinking of these distinct sets of people— staff, training specialists, vendors, human resource directors, lab owners, and customers—as different categories of stakeholders—they can help you attain your lab’s ideal state in ways you may not have realized. They can be included as steering and governance committees, as vision champions, and as implementers, quantifiers, and improvers of the conditions you wish to create and foster.

Next, organize those stakeholders (or at least a representative subset of each of them) into a steering team that will help you make those ideal-state goals a reality. Wherever possible, look at business improvement campaigns from a people-process- technology perspective, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1Figure 1: This framework allows for a cyclical and step-wise process that can be tailored to the needs of individual labs, but also provides structure so that roles can be assigned, steps not missed, and other components addressed.Note that the order in which the process steps appear is from left to right. Your people are always going to be much more valuable than the process and technology. This is often overlooked in technology-driven laboratories. But very often what costs most are people: the procurement of talent, payroll, insurance, training spend, and so on. You want to manage and utilize your people in a way that retains them and that such retention has value to your lab. Think of your people in terms of your goals.

Similarly, don’t look for individual pieces of equipment and vendors to provide them, look for partnerships. Vendors are one of your stakeholder groups, so you’re going to want to partner with them. Unfortunately, a common modality in the client-vendor relationship can be epitomized as, “I wonder how this person will put the screws to me, and how can I best protect my interests?” If you think, when negotiating contracts, that you’re the only one thinking that, you’re wrong. Vendors are thinking the same thing, which is another reason why you need to include them in your lab business improvement initiatives often and early.

The same thing can be said for laboratory support groups: Human resources, legal and compliance, logistics and support. If these people are given ownership of the overall improvement process, they will start to act like owners, and the whole endeavor will be more manageable.

Figure 2Figure 2: Most labs have a top-down, siloed approach towards information exchange, in particular when it comes to business improvement initiatives. A new modality, and the one discussed in this article, improves the chances that those improvements succeed.By incorporating a governance team approach, and keeping a broad stakeholder perspective, a number of benefits can be realized. As seen in Figure 2, improvements include ownership and performance responsibility for vision, directions, and decisions that make the lab manager’s job easier, and makes potential success more achievable.

Process assessment, gap analysis, and metrics

When talking about process—tools and techniques—we’re not merely talking about analytical protocols or methodologies, we’re talking about business process development as well. Don’t think sample receiving and report production, but instead think overall improved staffing, training, process, deliverables, client satisfaction, and quality analysis. Be a steward of business process management, those measures that will improve processes in a meaningful way.

One of the best ways to navigate process management is with the use of metrics. Business process evaluation and improvement cannot happen without them. A realistically measured process is a better governed process, and a governed process has a much higher probability of success.

How do you measure a process? By coordinating and communicating with your stakeholders. An example would be: Given what we’re trying to accomplish, we need to see X% increase in throughput; or, we would like to see this particular analysis conducted X many times per time period using Y number of analysts. Remember, these metrics are not “failure indicators,” they are merely indicators. Not hitting them doesn’t mean the idea was “wrong.” But also listen to your metrics. Metrics not doing what you want are cautions, while others are indicators of a flaw in direction. Only you and your stakeholders will be able to tell which is which.

Technology should support your people and business processes, not supplant them or dominate. We are not talking only about the technology of your lab operations, but also technology that supports your people and business processes (intranets, real CRMs, social networking, survey apps, etc.).

Pilot testing and experimentation

Heuristic: adjective. “Proceeding to a solution by trial and error or by rules that are only loosely defined.”

A heuristic approach is about getting to a better place by recognizing that you’re not going to get there in one hop. Big things happen in small steps. This idea needs to be a component of your overall mindset. You cannot just be willing, but must be an active champion of demonstration, pilot tests, and experimentation. Get used to saying, “We’re going to try this.” But remember your metrics. If you’re going to enlist a trial and error approach, imbue that approach with measurable indicators.

Changes, risk, and projects

Change is a big part of what a manager has to deal with when looking to improve processes. Built into the communication with your stakeholders needs to be the fact that change is coming and it should not be feared. You need to embody a healthy respect for change so that you can engender it in others.

This is one of the first instances where you can appoint someone to be responsible for change. Call them the “change champion,” because it empowers that person and helps the rest of your lab realize how important change is to overall success.

Risk management is another area you must steward, and one best executed by the whole team in an integrated way. At the very least, put someone in charge of identifying observed risks that are encountered in the group’s discussion of the ideal state and the path to it. This is yet another way to allow end deliverables to become a reality—by enumerating and accounting for foreseeable risks. Such risk identification and management, by the way, is easier when you use the end-state perspective we recommend.

Similarly, other required projects often present themselves naturally when you use an end-state perspective. It also helps you understand where the hard work is going to be, which allows for more effective planning. When you map processes this way, you will see where new people and skills are needed, which will feed into your training plans and help identify the gaps that specific instrumentation, equipment, and services can fill.

Laboratory operational improvement is going to involve tasks that are not the most enviable to undertake. Make sure that the people who are doing the rubber-meets-the-road work do not go unrecognized. We’re not talking about vacations in Aruba, but maybe something as simple as a Starbucks gift card. When everyone comes together in meetings, let the team give a clap to your change champion, or the person who transcribes the meeting minutes. Give them their time in the sun for what are often unrecognized contributions.

Ideal state realization

When you follow this approach, your lab’s needs surface in a discoverable way. And when you engage your people in regular communication, these needs will be vetted from a number of different perspectives, which will lead to improved processes. Notice, though, in Figure 1, that each step feeds back to the conceptualization of the ideal state. The reason for this is simple: there will always be a need for additional optimization because real world conditions change, and our endstate conditions need to change with them.

We realize that labs are full of people who stare at their shoes as they walk down the hall, and you might be one of them. But you’re a lab manager—and that means you’re running a business! As such, you must also be a people person. Once you begin to manifest the qualities of a manager who puts people first, you’ll begin to see those same qualities in others.

This process will not be as insurmountable as it may have once seemed. Success happens when big dreams are turned into reality in small steps. Which is why we strongly recommend looking at your lab as a business, with a wide stakeholder base that can share the load, and an ideal state of conducting business. If it was easy, anyone could do it. But it is possible, if an engaged and dedicated person is leading the charge. And that’s you.