Growing pressure is being placed on labs to increase sample throughput, deliver rapid, accurate results, and adhere to tighter quality control and regulatory compliance measures. You might be thinking about how you can boost productivity in your lab in order to meet demand and scale-up your lab operations. You could bring in additional storage capacity, instruments, resources, or increase lab space to help. However, simply increasing these doesn’t always have the desired results, especially if you don’t have the supporting processes and systems in place.
If you’re considering how to make the most of existing or new resources take a look at our 5 ways to help boost productivity in the lab.
1. Go digital
New challenges emerge when data and user volumes increase, and processes become more sophisticated. These can include:
- multiple users accessing and updating data at the same time,
- users requiring access to data across multiple locations,
- making sure everyone is following standard operating procedures (SOPs),
- security to only allow authorised users to access data,
- auditing for traceability and reproducibility,
- and importantly, compliance with regulatory requirements.
Having a consolidated, centralised system in place makes sure your data is accessible yet secure as well as helps reduce data duplication. What’s more, the quality of your data will improve through standardisation and the reduction of transcription errors that are often the result of using paper-based systems. Purpose-built sample management software or laboratory information management systems (LIMS) include functionality to manage data, samples, workflows, compliance and security.
Before you look at software solutions you need to understand how your lab operates and your main goals and objectives.
2. Streamline processes
Going digital won’t solve your problems if your processes are inefficient. Digitalising inefficient processes might eliminate some paperwork but won’t necessarily make you more efficient.
Start by taking a look at your lab workflows. By reviewing your existing processes – crucially this has to be what you do not what you think you do! – you may uncover some surprising results. You may even find that you can tweak your existing processes to deliver some quick improvements.
Likewise, you may find some processes where you don’t have any structured approach or formal procedures which could be causing delays.
However, don’t go overboard and create a procedure for everything as this can have the opposite effect of unnecessarily complicating and slowing your processes.
Once you have defined your processes you then need to make sure everyone is following them. This is where you can use software systems, such as a LIMS, to underpin your lab operations.
Also, this is not a one-off exercise. Your lab is constantly evolving and regularly reviewing your processes will help make sure they continue to support you.
Within every business there is a degree of repetition. Labs are no exception. As you review your lab workflows look at what you can automate. It might be that certain events always need to be audited or notifications automatically sent when a particular action is carried out.
It’s not possible, or advisable, to automate everything. Identifying time-consuming, critical lab activities that you could automate can help reduce time spent on administration and have a significant impact on boosting productivity.
Software systems, like a LIMS, can automate repetitive tasks.
4. Integrate or link
Multiple teams may be collecting information about samples and donors. In addition, analyses and processes you carry out on samples generate even more data. Your information may be held in different systems across your organisation. Having numerous data silos leads to lost time and duplication of work. A lot of time is lost in labs trying to find answers to questions such as where are my samples? what’s in the freezer? what’s happened with my samples? or has the donor opted in?
A LIMS acts as a centralised system offering integration or links with other applications including instruments as well as views into other data sources. This centralised, consolidated system with controlled access to data and workflows means everyone knows where to look for information. Plus, when a record is updated, it’s done once.
5. Visualise data
How do you know whether your lab is efficient? Do you know where in the lab you should be looking to boost productivity? It can be difficult to monitor this when you’re using spreadsheets with no audit trail. You may have to resort to watching everyone as they work.
In a LIMS, it’s easier to review and monitor your data. A LIMS audits actions and events along with date and time-stamping workflows, so you can see how long a process took from start to finish. You can use analytics and data visualisations to see the average time taken to complete a process. What’s more, you can see how long each step in a process took.
Analytics gives you a greater understanding of what’s going on across the whole organisation – at a glance. Helping you identify bottlenecks, non-compliance, training and quality issues as well as highlighting what’s working well so you can replicate it.
For analytics to be valuable you have to know what you are trying to achieve. Every LIMS can tell you how many samples of a particular tissue type you have. But what benefit does that give you? It might be useful if you’re a biobank and you want to know what’s in your inventory. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story. How long have those samples sat in storage, have you received requests for other sample tissue types which are, therefore, not included in any counts as they’re no longer in storage? If you’re looking to source samples and want to know which are the most popular, then the ones you have currently in storage might not be the ones you should obtain.
Finally, you can use analytics to monitor the impact of any changes you do implement and adjust as required.
A final thought on boosting productivity in the lab
Increasing productivity in the lab does not rely on changing one thing. It’s also not just a one-time only task. Your lab is constantly growing, customer demands are increasing, and regulatory compliance is evolving. Understanding your current position and how your lab really operates are the initial steps to deciding what changes will deliver the most impact – and are realistic. Clear communication to those working in the lab is crucial for the successful implementation of any changes. Finally, regular monitoring of changes will help make sure you have quantitative evidence of their impact.