Superficial Lean Laboratory Explanation


Laboratory Equipment – Easy Lean Lab Exercises

When I see “Easy Lean” or, as I also saw recently in a consultant's promotion, “Instant Lean,” I take notice and cringe. “Easy Lean” and “Instant Lean” don't exist. Sorry. Lean seems simple to understand, but it's really hard to instill in an organization.

This medical laboratory website has a description of the Lean process that's so superficial that it might actually be harmful. This might fall into the subset of “L.A.M.E.” that stands for “Lean As Mistakenly Explained.”

The article starts off well enough, even with the scary “Easy” headline:

According to the Mayo Clinic's Medical Laboratories white paper, “Innovations in the Clinical Laboratory,” Lean is a continual process of improvement: “The main objective of Lean, when applied in the laboratory, is to deliver quality patient laboratory results, at the lowest cost, within the shortest time frame while maintaining client satisfaction.”

OK, I can accept that. What I can't accept is the notion of a “step-by-step methodology” for Lean – there's no cookbook. This isn't a one time exercise, it's not something you implement and be done with.

Looking at their steps:

1) Value Stream Mapping

This is an OK place to start if you're focusing on customer needs. The diagram and description leaves the customer out of it, unfortunately. You don't just document your steps, you have to ask if you're meeting customer needs.

The diagram is what I typically see when people confuse Value Stream Mapping with simple process mapping. What's missing in this diagram is the waiting time BETWEEN steps. That's often where the big opportunity is found, the delays and poor handoffs between steps in the process.


2) 5S Workplace organization

This is an acceptable explanation of 5S

3) Visual Management

This part of their article was particularly frustrating. There's more to visual management than labeling everything. Ironically enough, their photo doesn't show the typical 5S workplace where the locations of items are marked and labeled.

What you DO see is a label maker machine produced by the company that provided the author for the article. Conflict of interest, anyone? Of course a label maker company is going to say you should label everything.

Do you see any visual management cues in that photo? I don't. The caption says “Visual cues such as labels make identifying an item and its designated storage area quick and easy.”

Sadly, they don't have a visual picture of that!

4) Work cell specimen processing

Yes, cellular layouts are great for improving flow and eliminating wasted motion and specimen delays. Reducing batches not only improves flow (as they stated), it also improves quality by reducing opportunities for mismatching errors (which they ignored).


Although the author says Lean isn't just a one-time activity, they pretty much ignore the management system and thinking that's different with Lean. Lean isn't just about what you do, it's more a matter of leading and managing differently.

The article pretty much ignores the Toyota “respect for people” principle, which is a lost opportunity for the reader of that piece.

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  1. Tim McMahon says

    I read that article and had the same thought you did. Nice attempt to explain with some typical starter elements of Lean. But they used the words quick and easy way too many times. Nothing in Lean Thinking is necessarily quick and easy, that is really just window dressing. It is always more about people and transforming the organization to see and think. The article missed any mention of these and as we know without creating the Habit (as Jamie talks about this morning) it won’t last.

  2. Lynn says

    Looking for information regarding the opinion of technologists on the ‘other side’ of the Lean process. It’s clear management is thrilled with the results in nearly all cases, but I’d like to see what those doing the actual work think of it. Do you know of any resources? Thanks.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Lynn — I think if the technologists view management as “the other side” instead of working together as a team, then there are deeper problems that are unlikely to be solved with Lean or any methodology.

      It sounds like you are looking specifically for negative responses from technologists? Are there online forums for MTs that you can check out?

      What’s your perspective here? Are you a technologist? Working in a lab that says they are going to use Lean? Already using Lean?

  3. Lynn says

    I apologize for not clarifying what I referred to as the ‘other side’. I meant ‘other side’ as in the process is completed. The laboratory I work in as a technologist is just beginning this process and I’ve been searching online to see what those who have actually been ‘Leaned’ think about the operation after reorganization of personnel and instrumentation has been implemented, but have not seen any information to that effect.

    1. Mark Graban says

      OK, thanks, Lynn. I have worked with a lot of techs who DO enjoy working in a “lean laboratory.” People’s roles and duties will likely change and some MTs like the old way of working alone instead of being more of a team in a lab with better flow. I hope you mean “leaned” in terms of the leadership embracing the lean management approach, including engaging everyone in continuous improvement.

      If “being leaned” means just moving analyzers around and some expert dictating new job duties, that’s not really Lean, that’s what I’d call “L.A.M.E.” —

      Keep in mind lean improvements are never really “completed” – as it’s a continuous improvement process. You might have an initial project that’s done… that’s why I was a bit confused by “other side” at first even after your clarification.

      Here are some good case studies from my former employer:

      And I have some articles about lean in labs here:

      Feel free to email me (mark at leanblog DOT org) if you like.


  4. Katie Littler Adamson says

    Hi Mark, I absoloutely agree with you! We began our Continuous Improvement journey in Lab Med in Bolton England in 2005. Lean is definately not just a set of tools, without the Respect for people it will not work. More than this, any initial low hanging fruit improvements will not be sustained. Key to continuing improvement is staff engagement and strong Leadership which needs to be talent spotted out of Techys who can truly empower staff!

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