We all want to be productive, right? However, this is quite often easier said than done, especially in a busy QC laboratory environment! Who has the time spare to sit back and find ways to increase productivity when there are numerous samples awaiting analysis? There are always little tasks popping up throughout the day, consuming too much of our time. You find out that the stock solution, or HPLC mobile phase you prepared this morning has been used up since you last checked and other departments within the business have questions that need answering. These seemingly small tasks add up, ultimately leading to a less productive lab.
Outlined below are just 10 steps demonstrating how employing a LIMS can allow you to be better prepared to be more productive.
- Plan your day
- Track time spent on tasks
- Put spare time to good use
- Maintain a Clutter-Free Environment
- Stock Control
- Equipment Maintenance
- Organise Data
- Dīvide et imperā (Divide and Conquer)
- Cohesion, not Competition
- Tidying up and preparing
1. Plan your day
To start off, simply plan your day before it starts. The easiest way to do this is with a to-do list. This allows to you have a visual overview of your day and feel accomplished along the way when you start ticking off completed tasks. By having an overview, you can organise your time better and ensures you don’t forget the apparently ‘small’ tasks that you otherwise might.
Logically, by planning out your day in writing, rather than in your head, allows you to free your mind for more important objectives. A well-planned day lets you set out your goals for the day as well as the steps and tasks to achieve those goals.
A dashboard facility on your LIMS system will facilitate this by providing an overview of the current status of samples and any outstanding work or work that is overdue, including remaining test methods that are required for completion. Let’s face it, we have all forgotten about that sample we have left to one side with a handwritten note for somebody else to pick up the following day which has been ‘ignored’. LIMS can also provide a beginning or end of day report to highlight tests/samples that are nearing the scheduled or contracted turnaround time.
2. Track time spent on tasks
Keep a log of how much time you are spending on certain tasks. This will help you understand how your time is being taken up during the day and how LIMS can eliminate much of this wasted time. You can make this easier for yourself by noting the time taken next to the items on your to-do list. This can then help you to schedule your time and days since you have a better idea of how long those tasks will take.
Try not to postpone important yet boring tasks like cleaning equipment after use so that it is ready for the next user or replenishing stock when exhausted. Set a specific time to do each. LIMS can automatically track turnaround times from sample submission through to sample approval providing a true reflection of turnaround times. Information can be used to identify bottlenecks, problematic areas or specific products that regularly take too long – enabling you to act. Let’s say a sample requires a moisture content. Just as you begin the test, another sample arrives, followed by another. You only have one Karl Fischer, and each analysis takes circa 30 mins. Samples requiring this test are frequently referred to as taking too long. Use the information to justify the purchase of another Karl Fischer or initiate a change or revision to the test method. A LIMS can also provide clients or other users within the business with access to read-only test results, sample progress and reports through a web portal helping to reduce the constant bombardment of phone calls to your lab.
3. Put spare time to good use
Spare time does not mean time out of the lab. Rather, it is the time in between tests or while you are waiting for an instrument to become available. This time, between tests, is usually spent doing small jobs like creating a certificate of analysis or responding to an email.
A LIMS system can facilitate these small jobs. LIMS are designed to automate manual processes and to eliminate the amount of time spent on data entry. Simply enter your test method inputs and let LIMS calculate the end result. To go a step further you can integrate your lab equipment to enable the automatic import of data - this will automatically free up some time whilst the instrument does the work! Automating your laboratory instruments with your LIMS will help to resolve data integrity issues and transcription errors that can be costly to correct or have drastic consequences such as product recall. By implementing automated processes in your laboratory through LIMS functionality and equipment integration, your laboratory will also be well placed for sustaining growth and increase of sample throughput.
4. Maintain a Clutter-Free Environment
Some say I’m borderline OCD but it’s hard to work in conditions where your workstation is covered in half-empty glassware, chemicals, used gloves and scattered pieces of paper. It gives you very little room to perform actual work in an efficient amount of time. That’s why it’s imperative to put things back when you have finished using them. Make sure you have a dedicated area to sit down and write-up. Keeping a clean working station will help you increase the productivity of your work. A LIMS enables the consolidation of current lab/IT systems into one harmonised platform helping to eliminate numerous paper based documents (this itself helps to free up precious lab space).
5. Stock Control
The only thing worse than not being able to find the material you need to run an experiment is eventually finding out that there is not enough of said material left to perform the test! It’s almost infuriating. For managers and supervisors, it is imperative to create a system of labelling and stock control which enables staff to easily locate materials and easily identify when stock is reaching low levels. A LIMS can allow you to log/consume materials used in the lab and update their status whether they are in stock, out of stock, or expired for example. This helps create a system to keep better track of materials.
6. Equipment Maintenance
What’s worse than running out of stock? Getting to a particular instrument and realising that it's due a calibration or the annual service is overdue which then casts doubt over the confidence of any results generated. Using a LIMS to manage equipment maintenance could be a solution to this problem. A LIMS can send notifications prior to planned maintenance to ensure that preventative maintenance visits have been scheduled and ultimately help to reduce downtime. LIMS also permits the ability to incorporate stock and equipment with calibration data and expiry dates into the audit trail, so that you have full and accurate records of the sample analysis process.
7. Organise your data
In addition to keeping your supplies organised, you will really help yourself by organising your data. Entering your data as soon as you can after conducting the test will help you keep on top of it - instrument integration can again help with this – but it also ties in with the ALCOA principle. Your data can be viewed in multiple ways with LIMS; data can be presented in tables, charts and graphs and a spreadsheet style, familiar to users, making data entry quick and easy. To go a step further LIMS offers the ability to easily trend test results and rapidly perform data visualisation offering you new intelligence available at the click of a button. You can then display your data in any format you wish to help you communication and make decisions on product quality.
8. Dīvide et imperā (Divide and Conquer)
This step might be more relevant to lab managers and supervisors. The idea is to divide up tasks based on skill and time of your team members. It can seriously boost both teamwork and productivity. It’s also best to avoid checking over team members shoulders and micro-managing their every move. Make sure that everyone in the lab is sufficiently trained and encourage everyone to help one another with queries which will mitigate this. It will lead to a more productive laboratory as each member is doing the tasks for which they are trained. The ability of a LIMS to have validation, review and approval steps by different team members also eliminates the possibility of mistakes and enables team members to feel confident in their work and that of their team.
9. Cohesion, not Competition
Teamwork!!! Helping one another when there are questions is one thing, but offering to help others or giving advice or tips can really raise the morale and productivity of both the group and individuals. It should never be competitive in the lab. You are all working towards the same objectives, so it makes sense to support each other. Yes, LIMS can generate KPIs and other stats on user and lab performance, but a good manager isn’t going to use this against you. It will enable them to identify potential areas where re-training may be required or even new training to help address problematic areas and shortages in untrained staff on certain equipment.
10. Tidying up and preparing
Another task that we often want to avoid is cleaning up after you have finished sample analysis. Who really wants to wipe the bench or clean the glassware (no comment 😊)? But it has to be done. If you really cannot bring yourself to do this right after you have conducted the experiment, at least make sure you do it before the end of the day. By preparing and setting things out for work the following day, you can really improve the start to it. It will mean one less chore to do before you can get down to work.
Following these ten steps can help increase productivity in the lab in the short term which, in turn, will help you be more effective in the long run. It’s clear LIMS can help from an efficiency perspective in many ways, but the two main areas are:
- The ability to process more samples without increasing headcount. (Getting more people is always a lot harder to secure finance for than investing in systems that increase productivity.)
- Take the time savings generated via LIMS and reallocate QC resource into higher value activities that will generate savings in other areas of the business.
If you can implement and master these tips, it will help your laboratory not only become more productive, but it can allow it to be more effective at generating quality data. It will also enable any auditors of your lab, whether internal or for regulatory purposes, to easily access the necessary information.