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.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleThe Emperor’s Sacred Cow’s New Clothes – “Flexing” Hospital Staff
Next articleU.S. Companies Competing with China Using Lean
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. 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. 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.

    • 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. 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.

    • 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. 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!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.