Lean Labs and the 5 S’s

More and more my conversations with clients are round the idea of optimizing the work space to increase efficiency and productivity for scientists while maintaining a safe environment.  Why you might ask?  In these economic times companies want to expand in place and make minor changes in space and process that could have benefits of increased employee satisfaction and quality, while using less resources, time, and effort. 

How do we do this?   We implement Lean Lab Principles.  Lean lab principles are derived from lean manufacturing and the 5S workplace organization methodology.  These Lean principles can aid a laboratory in increasing speed, efficiency, quality and safety.  The physical layout will affect how people work.

Going through this collaborative process you can improve the performance of your lab by improving flow and eliminating waste.

These Five principles are:

   1.  Sort – to get rid of unnecessary equipment or store it.
Straighten (or “Set in Order”) – Organize work areas for maximum efficiency by organizing tools & equipment to promote optimum work flows through minimizing movement.
   3.  Shine – Everything is cleaned and functioning properly.
   4.  Standardize – Develop a routine for sorting, setting and shining.?
   5.  Sustain–create a culture that follows the steps on a daily basis.






Steps to applying the Lean Lab design:

1.  Sort:  This is where the tough decisions and value judgments need to be made. How do we eliminate waste or non-valued added activities?  There are seven original wastes  defined in the lean method.  Some other sources add another waste – not using knowledge and intellect.

  • Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Wait, Over-production, Over-producing, Defect,  added waste not using knowledge and intellect of the staff

An easy way to remember the original 7 is the acronym TIM WOOD

Data gathering & engagement: this is the foundation that provides us information to measure and identify opportunities for improvement.  We need to understand what you do, your goals and how we will measure success!  In order to measure success we need to identify the right measures, metrics, qualities and quantities of space for the laboratory, support labs, and workspaces.

To do this we acquire data on present staffing and projected staffing. Look at present business models and long-term growth models. Look at industry trends, preform formal surveys, conduct observational walkthroughs, researcher in-lab interviews, and map work flow.  Finally, we gather information on space, equipment, and materials usage and their locations.  One exercise we use during the engagement part of data gathering is asking focus groups what the current state of their labs are and then ask  them to define their future state. In an article I read a few years ago there was a quote that I liked which summed this step up. 

When all is done, we have seen the enemy, and low and behold, it is not us!  It’s the system we have been working in, and most importantly, using science, we have personally and socially interacted to change it!”

How do we sort all this stuff out?  We look at each process for these eight wastes and try to eliminate them.  I use tools such as:

  • Single Line Diagrams: this is where we have the researcher give us a day in their life where they identify what they are doing, how long are they doing it, where are they doing it, and obstacles.  This gives us a map as to their daily process.  Once drawn it looks like spaghetti.  This can be evaluated for efficiencies in motion and waiting!
  • Breaking down the facility into smaller buckets so you can wrap your hands around it.  These buckets could be the: floor, wall, ceiling, base cabinets, bench top, shelving, wall cabinet, support areas, and fume hoods.  During our observation we look at each bucket and all the STUFF that we see in that bucket and ask the following three questions: What is it?  Why is it there?  When is it used?  This can be evaluated for efficiencies in motion and waiting, inventory and transportation.

 There is some low hang fruit that can be achieved at almost every facility: 

  • Equipment: look at each piece of equipment and “Red Tag” anything that that could be eliminated. Move it to a temporary storage area and then get final approval from management to remove it or store it.
  • Supplies: remove excess supplies to a central area or create satellite storage areas where it can be accessed by others that might need it.  At one facility we took a walk with the user groups opening up all the base cabinets and one member exclaimed “I did not know you had those, I just order another box!”
  • Chemicals: look at the chemicals stored on the bench top / shelves and determine whether these are required to be there in bulk quantities or could these be located in an adjacent chemical storage area.

2.  Set in order: This is the synthesis and validation part of our process.   Using all the data that we have gathered we develop opportunities for improvement.  We like to use “Seed Ideas” which are concepts that are derived from data depicting optimal work areas, flows, and process suggestions.  These ideas can be represented as a sketch or a picture.  The basic idea is to get these seeds in the hands of the people that can nurture them, the users.  Here they can be developed into schemes that can be implemented or become the spring board for a totally different idea.  The most important part of this process is generating input from the user group into how they want  to work and how to improve it through implementing standard operating procedures or by modifying the lab and or building to facilitate the required change.

Typical seed ideas


3.  Shine:  The intent of this step is to keep your equipment and work area clean and functioning properly.  One way to keep your equipment functioning properly is to implement an inventory control program which will keep you pro-active instead of reactive. This system tracks important dates such as purchase, maintenance, calibration, breakdowns and repair.  Another way that the design team can help in this step is to design spaces which are ecologically friendly and easy to maintain.

4.  Standardize:  This is primarily about the user group defining standard operating procedures to improve their work process and or environment.  But I see this as a challenge to standardize the kit of parts that are used in each lab. From general lab organization to casework I look at how to standardize systems and locate functions from lab to lab / floor to floor in the same locations so that the facility and staff can adapt to the ever changing business needs. 

5.  Sustain is

  • Motivate all  members of the organization to ensure that the new project is applied and improved through employee involvement.  You need to empower them to be involved and to continually improve the project
  • Educate and align people on how to use the space – change communications/management.   We have created user manuals and/or narrated 3d fly overs of thespace depicting and explaining the benefits and proper use of the space. These documents and videos define what behaviors would be expected from them in their space.  
  • Re-Assessment is a critical part of the success of the change process. This is a process that you revisit, at intervals, the goals of the project and make sure you are still in alignment. 
  • Environmental implication: did this process remove waste or implement green chemistry(The hyper link will take you to the EPA web site on Green Chemistry).  According to the EPA Green Chemistry can reduce waste, provide safer products, and reduce energy and resources.  Sustainability also applies to the design of the space and its environment.  By using LEED, an internationally recognized green building certification system you promote a whole-building approach to sustainability by using an integrated design process that explores all economic and environmental factors.
  • Analysis of change: Finally you also need to measure the improvements so that you can validate success. By revisiting the goals and metrics collected during the first step of this process you will be able to gage the extent of your success and determine your next steps. 


This process is one of continual improvement!