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Is Introducing Automation and Embracing Lean and Oxymoron

In case you are wondering what the term “oxymoron” is all about, let’s take a look at the definition found in the Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1/1/1998.  “A term in RHETORIC for bringing opposites together in a compact paradoxical word or phrase: bitter-sweet; a cheerful pessimist.  The term is often used for social comment, humorously or cynically.”

When we talk about applying Lean in our businesses there is often the up-front concern that the deployment will result in job loss.  When people fear job loss, you can forget about them being involved in a meaningful way in adopting a Lean paradigm.  Putting Lean and automation together at the same time and calling it “good” for our workforce can very well be seen cynically by many.  As a consequence, the organization may overlook opportunities to leverage automation because people who are afraid will neither help identify opportunities nor commit to making automation work.

Assuming your business has adequately communicated the “why” for aggressively pursuing Lean and automation and laid to rest those aforementioned fears; we are still left with the problem of how to deploy in a fashion that leverages Lean and automation together.  Let me share a recent case study of where leveraging the best of Lean and automation can be hugely successful.

Take, for example, the intake operations for very large medical institutions’ clinical lab.  What they do is perform the identification, labeling, and routing of specimens from thousands of medical providers (hospitals, clinics and the like) to a large number of internal and external labs for testing.  There are unique problems associated with keeping the specimens stabilized and also dividing (aliquoting) a given specimen to have multiple tests performed.  The specimen processing procedures in any clinical laboratory are the most labor-intensive tasks and are subject to human error.  Specimen processing has two components; identifying and providing storage and temperature control for specimens in route for lab testing.

For our APICS crowd, this means they have a logistical/supply chain challenge on an order of magnitude few of us ever experience.  Imagine – what are the chances that thousands of medical businesses are all going to label and identify everything the same way?  Or that they would send the specimens at the same time or at an appointed time?  How many mistakes do you think the organizations are likely to make on the thousands of in-bound paperwork and specimens every day?  The short answer is that there are many problems to overcome!

At the same time, the demands of the customers are very high.  Quality of results must meet or exceed Six Sigma levels of performance because people’s lives hang in the balance.  What about pressure on lead times?  Intense!  What about cost?  All of us are customers.  Everyone I know wants the costs for medical services to be controlled and reduced.  At the same time, the industry is experiencing strong growth, and a shortage of skilled technicians is looming.  Avoiding the addition of bricks-and-mortar is desirable to keep costs in line.

Faced with all these pressures, this organization has been embracing Lean and Six Sigma to continually focus on quality, simplify the work and reduce wasted human effort.  In their business, quality is always first.  They realize that relying on human eyes will never get them where they need to be.

In their value stream mapping and studies of the business processes, they took the logical steps of analyzing the statistical characteristics of in-bound specimens.  As is usually the case, the Pareto analysis of the data suggested a relatively small hand-full of specimen types and client medical providers represented a large percentage of the population of specimens to process.  They recognized a ripe opportunity to apply automation.

The organization chartered a project to allow for scalable automation capable of handling thousands of specimens per hour and routing them to over 100 delivery locations initially.  The automation provides many benefits including:

  • Reconciliation of specimens to the client institution’s electronic shipment records – and triggering corrective action when discrepancies are found.
  • Reading barcodes in various formats to speed recording, and eliminate human work and data entry errors.
  • Coding each individual specimen uniquely for tracking throughout the value stream.
  • Increased rate of workflow to keep up with spikes in system inputs.
  • Reduced turn-around time of 50% or more – much faster than what is possible with human handling techniques.
  • Human interventions – picking up specimens and reading them for various steps prior to lab testing – have been reduced to a single touch at the receipt point versus a half-dozen or more touches before the automation project.

There are many benefits to the workforce that were identified by worker teams long before the automation project was a reality.  Some of the benefits to the workforce from automation include:

  • Less stress in dealing with repetitive tasks – such as repetitive reading and keying-in data and manual verifications.
  • Fewer disruptions to deal with human errors.
  • Freedom to focus more time on the customer’s problems.

Careful consideration in communicating about automation, and then focusing on the things that improve quality and workforce productivity is critical.  Leveraging automation in your Lean endeavors does this, and is a key to future competitiveness.

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