The human side of lab automation

Breaking down silos in your organization is the first step to a smooth automation transition, and it should happen before equipment installation even begins. If thinking about how to do this makes you feel uneasy or confused, you are not alone. But it can be done, with advanced planning, and maybe a little help from a friend.

The human side of the automation process often is overlooked, but it is as important as addressing the physical and technical aspects of the transition. The most successful lab transformations occur as a result of staff input, alignment and adaptability—all of which require communication.

The more a laboratory automation solution project is fully integrated, through IT and multi-disciplinary analyzers, the more complex the change is for an organization that, like most do, had been operating in silos. This is because traditional processes and muscle memory are interrupted when an automation project is underway, but the workload does not stop. Strong collaboration among laboratory staff and stakeholders, however, preserves productivity during the temporary disruption.

While every project is unique, deploying the following best practices throughout implementation will improve alignment among colleagues and positively affect the outcome.

Identifying stakeholders

Upon deciding to initiate an automation project, identify each stakeholder who will support or feel the effect of the project. This is an opportunity both to gain crucial buy-in through staff involvement and to excite staff by demonstrating how their input will make their roles and the laboratory’s offerings better. Stakeholders range from lab directors and purchasing decision makers to vendor project managers and many others—such as IT specialists, quality managers, lab technicians, disciplines managers, and others who can offer insight into the hospital or health system’s protocols for upgrades or modifications. Each stakeholder will bring to the table different experiences, backgrounds, and skill sets as part of the planning process.

Give them a voice

Once you have identified stakeholders, meet with them to develop a list of needs and desirable outcomes, and to discuss their anticipated roles and responsibilities during planning and execution. Discuss all possible goals versus what is feasible against the project budget, to ensure that everyone is aligned on the outcomes. Goals should be specific, measurable, and, most important of all, achievable. Expand thinking beyond one or two years ahead to consider expansions and updates that may happen five or 10 years from now. All of these variables will contribute to developing the most effective project plan. Discussion points should include:

  • strategic, financial, operational, clinical, and organizational goals
  • current service capabilities and expansion opportunities
  • health system or hospital protocols for upgrades or modifications (for example, infection, electrical, ventilation, plumbing, IT, staff training)
  • internal and external factors, opportunities, and risks that may influence the outcome of the project
  • the budget
  • specific objectives and project scope (and importantly, what may be considered outside the scope)
  • a realistic and achievable timeline with specific milestones
  • measurable success criteria for each milestone
  • defined return on investment so stakeholders can easily recognize the value
  • frequency and forms of communication to keep stakeholders apprised.

Consider outside help

How to navigate these decisions—or where to begin—may seem overwhelming. Consider enlisting the aid of a workflow consultant and a project manager.

A workflow consultant is an expert trained to methodically analyze a laboratory’s productivity objectively and offer solutions for improvement. He or she adds value to the project team by conveying to decision makers cost justifications for modifications based on process improvement methodologies and offering case studies from other projects with similar goals. The early planning stage is the optimal time to add a workflow consultant to the project team.

A project manager is an expert certified to coordinate the technical and physical aspects of implementation, resources management, and third-party management. The project manager works hand-in-hand with the workflow consultant and is responsible for validating project milestones and timing, and for adhering to budget compliance.

Maintain stakeholder involvement

Deliver regular progress updates. Use the predetermined channels to communicate to all stakeholders. There is no such thing as over-communication. Take advantage of the opportunities to celebrate milestones and to highlight the success criteria established during the planning phase. When the project is complete, showcase the ROI the laboratory is contributing to the greater hospital or health system.

In closing, automation success hinges on detailed planning and cross-collaboration, which requires input from and communication with stakeholders from the beginning. Communication and involvement throughout every implementation phase will avoid common obstacles resulting from miscommunication or ambiguity.

North Memorial Health Care

An example of the value that a workflow consultant and project manager can bring to an automation project is provided by the experience of the North Memorial Health Care (NMHC) reference laboratory in Minnesota.1 NMHC serves the Twin Cities metropolitan area with a Level I trauma center, community-based primary and urgent care, and a 24/7 reference laboratory that provides vital services to area physician offices, clinics, nursing homes, and other organizations. Its reference laboratory was among the first in the area to implement automation, but as the system aged and healthcare reform challenged the NMHC to run lean, the laboratory could no longer meet goals to improve quality, efficiency, and productivity while reducing costs. Too many processes remained manual and therefore prone to error, leading to workflow inefficiency and inconsistent turnaround times, which in turn forced some testing to be sent offsite.

NMHC aimed to generate revenue by expanding its reference laboratory but was constrained by a system that could accommodate neither growing demand nor changing test menus. Defining its upgrade requirements, NMHC wanted total automation, from pre-analytic to post-analytic processes, with the ability to prioritize STAT testing on the track. It sought a consolidated solution that would enable the lab to cross-train staff to work where they were most needed. A smaller-footprint solution would occupy less space and also take less time for people and tubes to traverse.

The consultation team performed a workflow analysis that identified opportunities to optimize track design, menu balance, and load balance. For example, to streamline workflows, the laboratory deployed automation modules for tube input/output, centrifugation, decapping, sealing, desealing, and refrigerated storage and retrieval. With guidance, NMHC designed its track with a “T” at one end to accommodate more instruments for a seamless transition when the lab integrates additional test disciplines in the future.

At pre-implementation meetings, the workflow consultant and project manager set expectations, answered questions, and provided a timeline. Further, they project-managed the installation to ensure everything was in place to support smooth implementation and trained NMHC staff on the new system.

The NMHC laboratory automation example demonstrates the advantages of deploying a strategic vendor relationship to help navigate the process. NMHC now has increased capacity, faster and more-consistent turnaround times (TAT), and staffing efficiencies. After implementing automation, the laboratory was able to increase its annual reference lab sample volumes 12 percent. Additionally, the lab was able to decrease turnaround times for BNP and troponin tests to benefit trauma, stroke, and cardiac patients. BNP turnaround times were reduced by 19 percent and troponin turnaround times were reduced by 17 percent.1 These improvements were critical in extending NMHC’s leadership as both a community care provider and a revenue-producing reference lab.


  1. White Paper. Automation upgrade helps improve efficiency and grow outpatient business.

Sophie Dochez Belin serves as Global Marketing Manager for Services for Siemens Healthineers Laboratory Diagnostics. In her role, Sophie is responsible for identifying new service offerings to enhance customer satisfaction, from lab design services to performance management services.