Today’s laboratories apply LEAN or Six Sigma

Manostaxx - Industrial Management Consulting
Manostaxx – Industrial Management Consulting

How do today’s laboratories apply LEAN or Six Sigma concepts? There are numerous approaches that can be taken and because of this the concept of LEAN or Six Sigma may be overwhelming. You may ask, where do I even start? There are some simple approaches labs can take, and still get big payoffs. As we found when we applied LEAN in our lab, the process can be a fun team building exercise that doesn’t have to be a daunting process to be beneficial. You can start small and use basic LEAN approaches such as those in 5S to get started.

The 5S’s

Broken down the 5S’s are: Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain—essentially, “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
5S Lean Steps

LEANing the layout

One great way to apply LEAN in the lab is in the layout of both the lab and individual work areas. Many of today’s laboratories are challenged with the need to increase capacity without increasing space.  Many labs also need to maintain flexibility in design and layout as the space may be utilized by different departments. One way of gaining the maximal benefit from your lab space starts at the bench top or hood work surface. By optimizing the layout, you can create an efficient workspace area or what is called a work cell. A general definition of a LEAN/Six Sigma work cell is an efficient arrangement of items in the work area to improve speed and quality in the process.

So, where do you start? How do you create a bench top work cell?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help get you started:

  • What kind of processes are completed at this space? Are there more than one? What are they?
  • Do you need to have flexibility in the space? Meaning do you have different departments sharing this space? If so, do they use the same equipment at this space?
  • How many operators will need to access this space? (As you answer this question think about getting feedback from the operators regarding this work cell.)
  • Do you have equipment that requires specific maintenance or has location restrictions?
  • Do your operators have to move to different locations in the lab while they work? (e.g. Moving between the bench to equipment, like a refrigerator or oven.)
  • Are your operators right or left handed? (This will determine the natural motions they make such as clockwise vs. counter clockwise.)

As you review these questions, you may start wondering what these have to do with a work cell. How would these affect efficiencies? In Six Sigma, having excess ‘Motion’ and ‘Transport’ is defined as process waste. Too much of either or both can create variation in your process and strain on your operators, which can lead to safety, quality, and productivity inefficiencies.

Map out and plan your work cell

Once you develop a snapshot of the processes and operator needs, you can start to piece together the needs of your work cell. An easy approach is to use a white board or poster presentation boards with sticky notes to help map out and plan your work cell. Here is a quick checklist to help you plan your work cell:

Checklist to follow when LEANing your lab

Label your work area

Once you have a work cell plan, create labels on the work area for each item. This will act as a guide for where items should be placed. In some cases, you may also want to label the item itself. As an example, a pipette stand could be labeled as such and would go in the area labeled “pipette stand” on the work cell area. If your work space needs to be flexible, you can create a map of the varied work cell layouts that you can post at the workstation. This will allow your operators to easily see where items go. One 5S point of this exercise is to ‘sustain’ the work cell area. You want it to stay this way and you want to help your operators keep it this way. If you have pipettes, reagents, etc. think about racks and stands that will allow you to store these items safely while still making it easy for your operators to access.

Figure 1 & 2, Clockwise and counterclockwise work cell layouts. Each represents a different workflow example.

Process flow of a LEAN lab


In summary, a work cell can help standardize work done in the area, minimize process wastes such as “motion” and “transport”, support 5S practices, and maximize space available. A recent article from Lab Manager – “Designing Labs for LEAN Operations”, stated that, “The design, layout, and placement of labs can have a significant positive or negative impact on the implementation and sustainability of lean processes and behaviors within the lab.” Having the appropriate layout and design can make or break your LEAN approaches. While it seems small, starting at the bench top level is an easy place to start and empower your lab to adopt a LEAN culture and become one of today’s LEAN laboratories.

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