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What Lean Management Can Bring to a Cannabis Lab

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jan 14, 2022   

Image credit: Method Testing Labs

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Cannabis testing laboratories are on a never-ending mission to make their practices as streamlined and efficient as possible, while still ensuring that potential sources of error are kept to an absolute minimum. As a part of this journey, some cannabis labs are looking to the manufacturing industry for inspiration and are now beginning to implement several aspects from the “lean manufacturing” school of thought into their facilities.

To learn more about lean thinking and what this looks like in the cannabis lab, Analytical Cannabis spoke with Keith Browning, CEO of the Tampa-based laboratory Method Testing Labs (MTL), about its use of lean management principles and what benefits it has brought.

What is Lean?

Lean thinking is a management system based on the philosophy of eliminating all sources of waste in a manufacturing (or analytical) setting, in pursuit of the most efficient methods. The lean manufacturing system was first developed within the Toyota Motor Corporation for improving the efficiency of their car production line, but has since been applied worldwide to a much larger range of contexts.

Waste in a lab comes in many forms. In addition to the obvious chemical product waste, lab managers can also think of long waiting times, excess inventory, inefficient transportation, overprocessing, and the underutilization of human talent as contributing to the wastefulness of a system.

“The lean process for us is about setting up the instruments and setting up the employees to be able to very quickly find what they need,” Browning explained. “[We] have it really easy for them to access anything that they need around their workstations and be able to do that in an efficient way.”

Image credit: Method Testing Labs.

This efficiency extends to all parts of the laboratory culture at MTL, including communications. The lab had several large screens installed around the workspace that display the status of each sample as it travels through the testing process. When combined with suitable laboratory information management system (LIMS) software, these screens help technicians and laboratory managers to easily check up on operations and quickly address any problems that might lead to delays.

“We have in the lab these big screens telling you where every sample is in the process, so we know exactly where they’re at,” said Browning.

“Are they on the instrument? Are they in receiving? Are they in sample prep? Are there any issues with them? Are they on time? You’ve got the red, green, and yellow [screens]. Everything is always visual in that facility.”

Lean management in a working laboratory

Another key to the lean management style is the Gemba walk. Gemba is the Japanese word meaning “actual place.” In a lab, the Gemba would be “the actual place where testing is done.”

A Gemba walk is effectively a walking tour of the analytical testing laboratory, moving station to station to review the relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and identify any areas of waste. But equally importantly, it is a dedicated time slot where technicians can raise any issues or problems they may be facing with the management team, so that the problems can be discussed collaboratively and dealt with effectively.

“Every morning at 11 o’clock, lean processing has a Gemba walk,” Browning told Analytical Cannabis. “First, we talk about the activities we currently have and the current metrics for the day. Have we had any accidents? What's the number of samples we have coming in? What are the turnaround times that we've been hitting? It’s all the key, high-level metrics.”

“Then the lab directors walk through each one of the stations and have conversations. What are you working on? What’s working? What’s not working? What do we need to solve? Are there maintenance issues?”

Image credit: Method Testing Labs.

The Gemba walk is also a place where management can inform the lab staff about any additional information that may be helpful to them. For example, if a customer speaking to a member of the MTL customer service team mentioned that they were using a certain pesticide for the first time, this information could be relayed during the Gemba walk to the relevant testing station so that the analysts know what to expect.

“Each day at 11 o’clock we do that [Gemba walk], and then at the end of the day we have a 4:30pm walkthrough to see where we’re at with all the samples to make sure that we’re hitting the numbers,” said Browning. “Nothing left to chance.”

The benefits of lean management in cannabis

Implementing a lean management style in a laboratory is more than simply following a checklist and walking around the lab floor. Like all significant shifts in company culture, it requires buy-in and belief from the management team to ensure that the culture does not slip back to its initial form.

“On the lean side [of things], we had a consultant come and help us build out all of our structure, all the way from our KPIs,” Browning recalled.

“We pride ourselves on being a three-day turnaround for full panels, compliance, and we’re hitting those numbers. It’s been very helpful for us, the lean has helped us find where the issues are, and is helping us put in place fixes for that.”

One of the earliest issues addressed by implementing a lean system at MTL was inventory management. As a relatively young testing laboratory, MTL was expanding and dealing with more samples than ever before, and quickly learned the importance of continually checking and updating inventory.

“That was one of our beginning learning lessons,” Browning said. “That ‘Oh, we thought we had some back there,’ but we didn’t. So we put that lean process in place that really grabbed and said, ‘Hey inventory control, what do we need to have?’”

Several lab methods also improved under lean management. Maintaining constant communication and review helped to quickly identify and eliminate common sources of error in sample preparation. Whenever a result did not return within an expected range, the method used for that sample could also be easily reviewed (and if needed, edited) to ensure that the methodology was correct and that the unexpected result was tied to the sample. This effectively cut down on waste by minimizing the number of re-tests that were required, freeing up the lab to process more original samples over the work week.

The collective awareness gained from using color-coded screens and having discussions with management over the Gemba walks is another aspect that has been appreciated by the team at MTL.

“I’ve talked to a lot of our analysts and our technicians, and they love it because it gives them a real chance to understand, ‘Where am I at in the process?’ or ‘Hey, I’m behind and I need a little bit of help here,’ they can go to the lab director and say, ‘Hey, help me here,’” said Browning.

“In this industry, things change every day,” Browning added. “[You] think you’ve got it all figured out, and then something else changes.”

“We’ve got to be very flexible in that lean process to be able to understand those changes and move to them very quickly. And I think Lean helps us do that, it helps us figure out those places where we need to have focus.”

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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