PDA 2010: Pfizer Lets Its Lab Flow

March 17, 2010
Rhythm wheels and workflow leveling may be the secret to a Lean Lab, says Grange Castle's Ciaran Crosbie.

From Pfizer’s Grange Castle, Ireland, site, Operational Excellence Specialist Ciaran Crosbie shared his team’s experiences with implementing a Lean Lab at PDA 2010 in Orlando. In a talk titled, “The Search for Efficiencies in Your QC Labs—The Future is Lean,” Crosbie outlined how five labs in Grange Castle went Lean, why they did it, and what the benefits were.

There was a need for change, Crosbie began. Grange Castle was maturing from a “start up” site to a steady-state production facility. “We were very focused on speed, but as we have moved to a steady-state facility, that focus has shifted. Efficiency and cost-effectiveness are increasingly important.”

Crosbie also noted that while Lean and Six Sigma are long established (at Pfizer as well), “Pfizer is not Toyota and Labs are not the same as manufacturing environments.” Labs deserve special Lean consideration, but the bottom line, Crosbie noted, is that “you can and should apply Lean and Operational Excellence” in the Labs.

What is Lean? “Elimination of waste” is fine as a definition, Crosbie noted, but the real intent is “the complete and thorough elimination of wasteful practices.” Achieving this more complete definition necessitates the creation of product Flow through the implementation of Leveled Workflows. Leveled workflow entails establishing a system whereby the peaks and valleys of lab work are anticipated and reduced. “Leveled workflow is an essential enabler for moving to flow and becoming more productive,” Crosbie said.

Crosbie summarized some key Lean Lab concepts that Pfizer Grange Castle is adhering to:

Concept 1: The Effect of Volatile Workloads (Mura). The gap between your leveled demand rate and your staffing level is waste, he said, illustrating the concept on a chart.  “Parkinson’s Law applies,” Crosbie noted.

Lean Lab Concept 2: Leveling & Flow (the Leveling Queue Concept). Lab managers must:

  • Create flow and use it to reduce sample throughput times.
  • Use the differences between throughput time and the lead time to allow queuing time for leveling. “Samples won’t age as much as you think!” Crosbie emphasized.
  • Lab resources/capacity then become more controllable. 

A critical tool in leveling lab workflows and making them more productive is the rhythm wheel. A rhythm wheel is a fixed, repeating sequence that allows a lab to conceptualize the patterns of its operations. Key steps in Grange Castle’s rhythm wheel include (which Crosbie illustrated graphically in a circular pattern, in the following order):

  • Identify standard work (role cards)
  • Improve efficiency (grouping)
  • Level the workload
  • Level demand rate
  • Understand assay details (analyst vs. process time; set-up vs. run time)
  • Determine feasible assay group sizes
  • Consider other constraints
  • Shift the plan/pattern if needed
  • Understand your lead time (to disposition).

Crosbie also discussed the complementary concepts of test trains—gridlike charts that are used in situations of higher volatility. What is the importance of rhythm wheels and trains? Said Crosbie:

  • They allow recovery of volatility losses (typically 15% to 20%) by facilitating leveling.
  • Because they control the workload and the mix “they allow us to design well-balanced productive roles that make good use of people’s time (10% to 15%).
  • They eliminate the need for elaborate short term planning and scheduling processes.

Visual Queue Management

Providing lab technicians with visual proof or updates regarding their efforts is another important element of a Lean Lab, Crosbie continued. If you don’t have an efficient visual management system, you run the risk of losing samples, running into bottlenecks, and other problems. With visual queue management, “As soon as you walk in the lab, you can tell how many tests are being run, how many samples per batch, how many samples per assay . . . all the information is right there.”

“It’s not very high tech, but it worked,” he added. “It has to be colorful and simple, and everyone has to have responsibility for it.”

These experimentations in Lean techniques have had much success in Grange Castle, where five labs have been “leaned” in an eight-month span. The process was carried out in two phases: using external support (i.e., consultants) for phase 1, during which time Pfizer “set out to fully internalize the learning from the very start.” As a result, phase 2 was conducted by internal staff.

The benefits that Grange Castle’s labs have witnessed:

  • Less planning and scheduling required by supervisors
  • Less “fire fighting” and tracking of samples required
  • Consistent reliable performance that meets the needs of the business
  • Fair, equitable and transparent division of tasks within the labs

Most importantly, said Crosbie, the lab analysts love the new system. “It might seem a bit trite, but it’s true,” he said. “At first they said, ‘we’re not robots or machines. You’re trying to micromanage us.’ At the end of the process, they were very positive.”

Editor’s Note: For more information on many of the concepts outlined by Crosbie, visit http://www.leanlaboratory.com/solutions-benefits.

About the Author

Paul Thomas | Senior Editor