Five Lessons for Implementing a Laboratory Automation System

Implementing a lab automation system is complex and requires coordinating multiple teams and resources

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Nancy Ross, MS, MT(ASCP)cmp, CQIA (ASQ), CLC (AMT)
Photo portrait of nancy ross

Nancy Ross is a laboratory professional with more than 20 years of experience. She is the founder of Improov, a laboratory consulting company with a focus on laboratory quality and performance improvement.

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Published:Aug 27, 2021
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Nancy Ross, MS, MT(ASCP)cmp, CQIA (ASQ), CLC (AMT)

Nancy Ross, MS, MT(ASCP)cmp, CQIA (ASQ), CLC (AMT), is a laboratory professional with more than 20 years of experience. She is the founder of Improov, a laboratory consulting company with a focus on laboratory quality and performance improvement.

Why do laboratories choose to automate processes? Automation becomes a solution for high volume laboratories looking to improve their productivity, efficiency, and turnaround time. Automation can also increase output quality by significantly decreasing the number of errors due to manual labor or assist in the handling of complex laboratory procedures. 

Automation tracks generally possess several interconnected modules to assist in the processing of specimens throughout the various phases. This includes terminals for specimen input and output, a conduit to link the various systems, some sort of pod to transport and track each specimen, and a series of modules to perform different specimen processing tasks. Implementing this type of laboratory automation system is complex, requiring the coordination of multiple teams and resources. 

Here are the top five lessons I’ve learned while implementing a laboratory automation system:

1. Know your current status before making any changes

It might sound simple, but to automate a process, the process must be completely understood. 

One of the biggest mistakes is making changes to a process that is not completely understood in terms of step-by-step activities and upstream and downstream ramifications. Even if the process is somewhat understood, there may be several teams working together as part of the automation project and some might not fully understand the process. 

As a manager, you will need to discuss the process in detail and ensure everyone is on the same page prior to making any changes. Use tools such as a process map to help elucidate all aspects related to a particular process in the current status. Make sure the process map is as detailed as possible to give everyone a clear understanding of the tasks at hand. 

2. Become familiar with project management tools

When I was assigned to lead an automation implementation project, I was confident that I could lead it based on prior experience with lab projects. However, a few weeks in, the complexity of an automation implementation project became clear to me, including the importance of utilizing  project management tools for managing the project.   

Project management tools such as Gantt and RASCI charts, project plans, etc. can assist you in getting information across to various teams, making proactive decisions, and tracking project progress. Project management tools are essential when discussing floor plan adjustments, the impact of construction issues, missed deadlines, and setbacks. They can also help us understand how setbacks may have a domino effect as various activities are often interconnected. Project management tools can help us keep track of  various details of the project, assign ownership to specific tasks, and find a recourse when things get derailed. 

3. Allow plenty of time for training

Once the automation track is installed and validated, adequate training is the most important factor for successful implementation. 

As a laboratory quality and performance improvement expert, my recommendation is not only to allow plenty of time for training, but also to develop a solid training plan that includes some form of competency assessment for the staff.  When developing the training program, there are various factors to consider. For example, do lab staff have any prior experience with automation? What is the level of expertise of the staff that will be performing the different functions? When will the track go live?

Using a competency model will help ensure your staff is able to perform key functions correctly. Training should be done as close to the go live date as possible to help staff retain information. If training must be done early, then a training refresher should be scheduled close to the go live date.

4. Prioritize change management

The success of any project or change depends on acceptance from your staff. You should prioritize communication with employees throughout the project so they feel as though the project is something they’re a part of versus something that is happening to them. Holding staff meetings, talking about milestones and next steps, answering questions, easing anxieties and concerns are all important aspects of engaging staff and obtaining their support. Key aspects needed to drive change may include different techniques, but communication and staff engagement are at the center of it.

5. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Even though the track is implemented and your staff is trained doesn’t mean the new system will work perfectly at first. In fact, most automation systems need a few weeks of acclimatization. During this time, staff morale and operational efficiency can take a deep dive if not handled appropriately. Your staff may be working through a learning curve, getting used to working with an automation system, understanding the different errors that may happen, or learning how to troubleshoot the track when things don’t go as planned.

During this phase, it helps to have a good reporting system to address issues quickly and minimize their impact on the operation. The process for reporting issues should be clear to everyone whether that involves alerting the key operator, the manager, or calling the vendor’s customer service line to request expert assistance. 

Equally, a solid downtime procedure should be part of the implementation process. Laboratory operations is a nonstop affair and the viability of specimens is a concern. Having a solid downtime procedure in case of an automation failure will ensure specimens continue to be processed with minimal impact to patient care.

Lastly, holding frequent staff meetings and rounding with staff will ease anxieties and inform you of what is and isn’t working, as well as what needs to be adjusted. Expect to make several necessary adjustments, including to hardware, software, workflow design, traffic, and sorting rules. 

Overall, the most important thing is to listen to your staff, know your process outcomes, and allow time for the system and the staff to harmonize.