The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is dedicated to safeguarding food, animals and plants, in order to enhance the health and well-being of Canada's people, environment and economy.
bioMérieux provides diagnostic solutions (reagents, instruments, software) that determine the source of disease and contamination to improve patient health and ensure consumer safety. Part of bioMérieux’s approach is also to look at laboratory workflow for its customers to answer the growing need for a leaner approach—to help them improve efficiency and productivity by working smarter.
Let’s take a look at a lean initiative undertaken with a CFIA laboratory to improve efficiency and reduce turnaround time.
The goal: improve turnaround time
Neil Vary was the Section Head of the Food, Feed, and Fertilizer Microbiology Section of the CFIA Ottawa Laboratory when he met with Mohammed Ahmed from bioMérieux. They discussed workflow optimization, with a view to reducing the time it takes to analyze samples for CFIA inspectors. Mohammed is a Six Sigma Black Belt in DMAIC (an acronym for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) and an expert in helping companies improve efficiency by optimizing workflow.
“At the time, we had three distinct areas in the laboratory, each dedicated to working with specific pathogens: one area looked for Salmonella, another for Listeria and a third for other food borne pathogens,” Neil says. As a result, there was a considerable amount of duplication in routine tasks. For example, each laboratory accessed samples brought in from the field and prepared them for analysis, and there was little communication or interaction among the different areas. Neil felt there might be ways to make the laboratory more productive by improving the workflow.
After analyzing a year’s worth of data from the laboratory, Mohammed and another bioMérieux employee, Arlene Larson, literally followed scientists over the course of several days, observing each step in their work. Their objective was to identify bottlenecks and other opportunities to optimize workflow. They came back with a report containing a series of recommendations for Neil and his team.
Hallway huddles became a daily ritual
Neil says some of the ideas were strikingly simple. “For example, we implemented a hallway huddle every afternoon around a white board, which displays information on workload and deadlines, so we can shift resources to where they are needed.” He says the daily hallway huddles had multiple benefits: sharing information helped improve workflow, enrolled everyone in the process, and also had a social benefit in terms of team building.
Another recommendation from the bioMérieux team was to reorganize workflow in the laboratory, with a view to standardizing tasks. “At the time, each area was completely self-contained and independent. The report suggested that we eliminate these work ‘silos’ by grouping the laboratories by activity instead of by pathogen,” says Neil.
As a result, each laboratory took responsibility for one step in the process, with the first area dedicated to preparing samples for testing. “We also modified work stations to place materials within arm’s reach. Now we have five work stations with almost identical layouts, which has made the process much more efficient.”
Side benefit: cross learning among co-workers
“Another benefit is that technicians working on the same task at the same time also began to learn from each other by observing and adopting better work methods from their colleagues. So now we have more sharing of knowledge and techniques, which has led to further efficiency gains,” says Neil.
“The lean initiative complements quality assurance (QA),” says Neil. “QA is about ensuring that we always have high-quality results in the lab, but it’s not necessarily about improving efficiency, whereas the lean initiative is aimed at that. We saw these two approaches complement each other very well.”
Evidence-based outcomes create buy-in
Like QA, the lean initiative involves examining current practices, targeting certain areas for improvement, designing and implementing a plan, then measuring the results against a baseline. “The last step is to come back and assess the impact of the changes,” says Neil. “We are scientists, so we really need to see evidence; as time went along and we started to make changes and do evaluations, we got more buy-in because everyone saw the evidence.”
Impressive gains despite greater workloads
Neil says the results were quite an eye-opener: “Our sample turnaround time went from about six days to 4.4 days, a 27% reduction. We also had a 36% reduction in manpower requirements, which freed up time from sample testing for other high-value projects for the Agency. Coincidentally, as we were implementing these changes, the number of food samples that came to us went up by 38%. Thanks to the ongoing efficiency gains, our technicians did not even feel this increase since their work efficiency had improved throughout the year.”
Lean initiatives: a journey rather than a destination
Just as QA is an ongoing process, so is a lean initiative. Along the way, additional challenges and opportunities are often identified and noted for future optimization initiatives. The efficiency gains and other benefits of the first workflow optimization initiative in the CFIA laboratory led Neil to believe in the value of regularly undertaking lean initiatives as a sustainable project.
According to Neil, the key to carrying out a successful lean initiative has been to involve the entire staff in identifying problems and brainstorming over solutions. “Their input was critical to its success, and they were valued. Showing them the results reinforced the importance of their contributions and helped them believe in it.”