Lean Principles

Last month we touched on implementing lean principles to help improve efficiency within the lab, as opposed to relying strictly on physical changes. For example, purchasing a larger centrifuge as opposed to switching to a different methodology completely for your STAT testing needs. But what exactly does “lean” mean?

The overall focus of a “lean” laboratory is efficiency: optimizing delivery of results by efficiently utilizing resources, thereby reducing costs and improving speed (turnaround time). If a step or action does not add value, lean laboratories will seek to remove or minimize this perceived waste.

There are 8 key areas where lean processing can be applied to minimize waste, improve efficiency, and prevent unplanned downtime:

  1. Defects: This can apply to both your consumables (reagents, controls) as well as your instruments and equipment. QC reagents that are not as stable as the manufacturer claims them to be can lead to failures, repeats, and extra costs (and time). Older equipment may be more prone to failures and breaking down, leading to additional downtime. Ensure all maintenance tasks are completed on time to prevent these interruptions.
  • Overproduction: Performing testing that was not requested by the customer uses staff time and resources, and cannot be billed for. Evaluate your critical value policy – are you repeating and verifying every single critical result, even though the patient has been consistently running that way since admission? Consider tightening your delta check rules and only verifying values when the result is either new, or a significant change from the prior result.
  • Waiting: If a process is idle or stagnant, resources are being tied down that cannot be used to add value. There is value to batching certain tests due to QC requirements or cost (ELISA plates, electrophoresis gels); however waiting to batch CBC samples on an automated analyzer does not provide the same return value. Similarly, waiting until an instrument runs out of reagent completely before loading more on board can cause further delays if the reagent has special handling requirements (thawing, reconstituting) or has not yet been calibrated.

Evaluate your workload to ensure you have appropriate staffing levels that match your testing volume. If your laboratory receives a large drop off of samples from outpatient clinics at 5pm, consider staggering your work schedules so that you have coverage when you need it, while minimizing the amount of staff waiting for work to arrive.

  • Not engaging all employees: Your staff on the front lines are the experts – utilize this valuable resource by tapping into their creativity. Ask them what is working in your current process, and what they would like to see improved. You may be surprised by the innovative ideas they come up with, and they will have a vested interest in making the improvements work.
  • Transportation: Excessive movement of reagents or samples can lead to time wasted. Try to keep heavy or commonly used items stocked near the location they are used in. It is much easier to transfer a 5 gallon reagent cube from a storage shelf within the hematology department than to bring it up from a central supply room 3 floors below the lab. When possible, utilize automation to process samples and organize completed tubes ready for long-term storage.
  • Inventory: Determine appropriate par levels for each consumable, and avoid over ordering when possible. Excess inventory ties up capital budget, space, and depending on the product can risk wastage due to short expiration dates. For items requiring a long lead time (heavy reagent cubes traveling via ground shipping), plan accordingly to avoid excess rush delivery costs. Within your inventory management system, include all necessary information so that all staff can reorder supplies when the par threshold is exceeded: full description of the item, photo, physical location where it is stored, supplier, item #, par level, amount to order.
  • Motion/Distances: Reduce excess travel and motion of both your staff and your samples to improve efficiency. Strive to create a continuous process flow when designing your lab work areas. Work should move along the process path in a smooth and uninterrupted stream; rather than having to keep returning back to a different bench or department. If different departments frequently share specimens (CBC and HA1c on the same tube), consider colocation of these areas to reduce excess motion between them.
  • Extra processing: Performing non-value added work, having redundant paperwork, or overly complicated processing steps can lead to errors and wasted time. Focus on simplification and standardization. For example, consider implementing a barcode scanner to reduce transcription errors associated with manual entry of values.

When looking to implement lean processes within your lab, start small. Look to see which departments or processing steps are generating the most waste and focus your efforts in those areas first. Even small steps can yield a big return when executed well. Efficient labs lead to happy techs; happy techs lead to successful labs.


-Kyle Nevins, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM is one of ASCP’s 2018 Top 5 in the 40 Under Forty recognition program. She has worked in the medical laboratory profession for over 18 years. In her current position, she transitions between performing laboratory audits across the entire Northwell Health System on Long Island, NY, consulting for at-risk laboratories outside of Northwell Health, bringing laboratories up to regulatory standards, and acting as supervisor and mentor in labs with management gaps.