Lean process improvement and business intelligence tools

Aug. 1, 2012

Lean Process improvement is more than a methodology or a structured approach that is used to obtain cost reduction goals. It is a belief held by everyone in the organization that, however the lab is operating, there is always opportunity to improve operational efficiency. It is a way of life, a philosophical approach, and a continual commitment by all to eliminate waste in a way that improves the financial health of the lab, streamlines internal processes, and improves efficiency, while enhancing patient care.

The Lean approach

There are generally five steps in establishing a Lean Process in any organization. Broadly defined, they are the following:

  1. Identify and specify the “value” of your lab, from your customer’s perspective.
  2. Prioritize and focus on those activities that will have the most impact on helping the lab exceed the value expectations as defined by your customers.
  3. Eliminate activities that do not add value. Establish a smooth workflow of the “value tasks” so that the efficiency of the lab and the experience for the lab’s customers are enhanced.
  4. Automate the value-added process in a way that provides your clients with a more favorable customer experience with as little effort on their part as possible.
  5. Continue to improve the process (that is, start all over again).

Critical to the Lean approach is the ability to retrieve, analyze, and report on data relevant to the processes within the lab. Software programs, referred to as “Business Intelligence Tools” (BI Tools), are commercially available to aid in meeting this real-time need for information. In NovoPath’s case, the BI Tool is tightly integrated in the Anatomic Pathology LIS via the company’s Lean Process Management Module, combining the commitment of the lab to Continuous Process Improvement. The Lean Process Module will help in:

  • determining which activities are value-adding tasks and which are not
  • identifying bottlenecks
  • identifying best practices
  • measuring progress made toward reaching set milestones and goals.

Relevant data

Each individual Functional Area (accessioning, grossing, transcribing, etc.) in the lab has its own set of tasks; when combined, they define the process for that particular functional area. The defined Functional Area Processes in the lab, taken together, comprise the lab’s workflow. The best approach to the Lean Process is to retrieve and analyze data from each individual workstation in a functional area (the “lowest common denominator” in the lab) and, through data analysis, set measurable goals to improve the process. As an example, tasks associated with the Accessioning Process could include the following:

  • Scan bar code from a requisition to capture patient demographics from Emergency Medical Records (EMR), Hospital Information Systems (HIS), etc.
  • Check that the clinical history for the patient is present.
  • Print relevant anatomic pathology history.
  • Enter tissue type with defaults set for the number of cassettes or slides.
  • Generate labels for specimen containers, cassettes, and slides.

Relevant real-time data can be utilized to understand “work load metrics”—the amount of work that is processed in a given period of time. Work load metrics should be defined for each individual performing a similar function. For the previously mentioned Accessioning Process, Work Load Metrics could be simply defined (for illustrative purposes) as follows:

Number of Requisitions and Specimens Processed / Time =
Work Load Metrics

From this small amount of data, benchmarks are established, and milestones and goals are defined. Utilizing Lean Process concepts, processes are established or reevaluated as value- added components to improve the lab’s efficiency. Goal attainment is measured and continually redefined using the BI Tools available to the lab.

Whether the lab uses the NovoPath Lean Process Module, or any commercially available tool on the market, those in charge of operations must analyze the lab’s current processes, identify and define goals, and measure improvement against these goals while continually refining them to improve overall outcomes. All of this should take place at the lowest common denominator in the lab—the individual workstation.

NovoPath’s Lean Process Module, as well as other BI Tools on the market, will assist you in achieving a leaner lab. With the increased competitive atmosphere in the Anatomic Pathology marketplace, there is no better time than now to start your journey to a Leaner lab.

Rick Callahan, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at New Jersey-based NovoPath, has 15 years experience in medical IT solutions, particularly regarding pathology and radiology.