Making Sense of the Chaos in Laboratories
To an outsider (and often even the insiders) laboratories can seem like a workplace hovering on the brink of chaos. The lab is constantly bombarded with hot requests for this lot or a special test for that project. Investigations, vacations, changes in product, adjustments in mix, FDA inspections, equipment issues and narrowly specialized analysts can often add to this sense of chaos. Usually it is difficult to see how work flows in the lab, if in fact it does flow. It can also be next to impossible to identify what is “normal” behavior. One of the critical steps in creating a Lean Lab is separating the routine (or in some cases, the most routine) from the non-routine or non-predictable.
Labs will usually find, to their own surprise, that the routine work far outweighs the non-routine. However, because the current lab is just a huge mix of routine and interruptions, it may seem like there is no consistency and that everything is a hot request or special test. Regardless of the reality in your lab, you cannot afford to continue viewing the world through chaos colored glasses. The only way out is to start seeing or creating consistency and repeatability in your work.
To begin, you will need to identify families or groups of work that, have similar tasks or testing and/or complement each other in terms of short interval volatility (i.e. high volume of one product at the same time as low volume on another). After grouping into families, you can then work to structure the work in a repeatable pattern.You may consider a weekly rhythm wheel, (i.e. a defined repeating sequence of tests) or test trains (i.e. a defined sequence of tests that repeats only when you have reached a pre-determined quantity of samples or one of the samples has reached a “must start date”) or some combination of the two.
Even after creating consistency for the testing there will still be non-routine work to do.In fact, you will never be able to completely avoid those unpleasant surprises. They will be there following you, even in spite of all of your best intentions. So… what do you do about it? Again, separate the routine from the non-routine. You will find that some of the surprises or interruptions could have been planned out and possibly avoided in their entirety. For those interruptions that you can’t avoid, a cover role (someone not assigned normal testing work) will be required.
It can be very tempting, when you see this “extra” un-assigned person, to immediately say “Look... They’re not doing testing. We can assign them to work somewhere else.” While this looks great on the surface, it eliminates your ability to deal with and manage all of those pesky exceptions to the consistency rules that you’ve put in place. And, without someone to manage all of the interruptions, the analysts working on routine work will be forced to stop what they are doing and help out. With analysts constantly interrupted to deal with disturbances, the lab will quickly devolve to the chaotic environment that you saw through your chaos colored glasses to begin with.
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