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Eliminating Waste Through Visual Controls in Lab Operations

Contributors: LaToya Lee Jones

An organized laboratory creates numerous opportunities to reduce waste. Streamlining lab operations can have an especially big impact on transportation, inventory, and motion waste. Searching in three places to find the appropriate face shield or not being able to locate the required HPLC column is not a good use of an analyst’s time. While those activities may only require an extra 10 minutes, adding up those 10 minutes for each analyst over the month can result in a big number. Not to mention, that non-value-added work is a distraction from the task at hand, increasing the potential for a process deviation or a safety event. In this piece, we outline considerations for eliminating waste through visual controls in lab operations. 

Leveraging 5S to Gain Visual Control in Lab Operations

5S is a great way to start the journey to waste elimination. 5S is a tool used to gain visual control over an area. Visual control provides the opportunity to quickly spot something that has deviated from the standard, enabling corrective action to be taken immediately.   

Having its origin in manufacturing, the technique has been deployed throughout organizations – warehouses, maintenance shops, offices, and laboratories. It’s an outstanding opportunity for the team members, based on their intimate knowledge of the processes, to contribute to waste elimination and take ownership of the area. 

The components of 5S are: 
  • Sort: Tag any materials, instruments, or tools that aren’t necessary to perform tasks in the area.  Either dispose of those items or move them to a more appropriate storage area. 
  • Set in Order: Designate a place for each item, ensure it’s clear what belongs in that place, and put it in that spot. 
  • Shine: Clean the area and anything that is stored there. 
  • Standardize: Create rules that will keep control of the area. 
  • Sustain: Develop a plan to regularly check and confirm the rules are being followed. 

Shadow boards are a common outcome of a 5S event. They’re a designated area to store tools with an outline of each tool. If something has been removed from the board or returned to the wrong spot, it’s immediately obvious. Shadow boards are a common solution for a cleaning supplies storage station. For example, at a pharmaceutical manufacturer, the QC lab had persistent problems keeping track of chromatography columns. Typically, after some searching, the columns would be found in the wrong cabinet. A 5S event resulted in the creation of a shadow board for the columns. The clear labels and some clever color coding made it very clear at a glance if anything was out of place. A daily stand-up at the end of the shift is also held near the board so that any misplaced columns are noticed right away.   

Another common technique to gain visual control in lab operations is taping off areas on the benchtop that are just the right size for the instrument or supplies along with a label. That same technique can be used on the floor for larger items. An empty, taped-off area is an indicator that something is missing. 

Working Toward Operational Efficiency 

5S is a great opportunity to start your team’s journey to operational efficiency. Team members quickly learn the concept of this tool, the results have an immediate impact, and it generates a sense of ownership. Think about bringing in a coach who has run these events in the past – after a few repetitions, team members will become comfortable running them on their own. Begin by selecting areas that will generate an easy win (storage rooms are a great place) and build from there. Those 5S wins can be a great introduction to larger initiatives that drive change because they promote ownership of lab operations and buy-in to the changes. As the team gains momentum, they’ll be prepared to tackle more complex changes.  

If you’re looking for guidance to help eliminate waste through visual controls in lab operations for leaner and more efficient performance, our team can help. 

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Tags: Clinical Operations, Digital Labs