Creating a Laboratory Workflow for Sample Management

A laboratory workflow is a set of procedural rules used to manage and coordinate tasks between people and systems in the lab. Lab workflows for sample management ensure that all steps and requirements in a defined process are correctly Laboratory Workflowfollowed to reduce the time and cost of sample handling,  preparation and data collection while ensuring the quality of the sample and any associated data is maintained. Workflows are often guided by standard operating procedures (SOP), and are most effective when thoughtfully developed to reflect real-world practices in the lab. Generally, lab workflows should encourage best practices that:

    • Improve adherence to quality standards
    • Promote compliance to regulatory requirements
    • Maximize laboratory throughput
    • Efficiently allocate laboratory staff and resources

Given the limited resources of most labs, how can a lab manager develop and implement workflows that encourage these overarching goals? Below are a few tips to get started.

Start small, but be impactful with the laboratory workflow you choose

When starting to develop laboratory workflows, it is tempting to try and create your entire workflow all at once on a macro level. Not only could that approach be overwhelming, it also skips important workflow analysis steps, and could lead to missing sub processes or important tasks within the lab. Instead, start by choosing a specific process that has the most impact for staff and the output of your lab. This may be a particular work area, or common set of procedures. For example, rather than focusing on the entire lifecycle of a sample within the lab, it may be better to start by focusing the workflow for receiving samples. Keep in mind that this workflow may have several subprocess/workflows such as those for sample labeling, quality control checks, verification of manifest information, or recording storage locations.

Identify obstacles and constraints within your lab workflow

As you detail the process from which you create your lab workflow, make sure you identify any bottlenecks, obstacles or constraints in the process as well as outlining the solution for those issues. When thinking about tasks in a sample processing workflow be sure to consider:

    • What are the important measurements and data points to track during the process? For example, is it important to capture the lot number of the reagents used, the temperature inside the building, the minutes a tube has sat in a reagent? By assessing what is the most important information to track, you will avoid capturing unnecessary information and cluttering your sample management software.
    • Are there tasks that should be repeated if a specific measurement is not within a specified range? How are those points assessed and tracked? By noting these measurements and stopping points in the process, your workflow will be more detailed and help ensure the quality of downstream data.
    • Do certain tasks need to be performed quickly? By knowing how time sensitive certain aspects of the workflow are, you can then better assess capacity and demand for staff and resources.

Keep capacity and allocation of laboratory staff, resources and equipment at the front of mind

This is important for both resource planning in the laboratory, and also for understanding the limitations of the workflow. If you only have one tissue culture hood, and it’s an integral part of your workflow, you’ll need to take this into account and set accurate expectations. Proper allocation of resources can also lead to an improvement of productivity and reduction of operating costs. A few considerations include:

    • Workstations: Are they properly set up to handle the required work? Does their physical location align to your workflow or create unnecessary bottlenecks.
    • Scheduling: How does the availability of resources align with the amount of work to be performed and staff scheduling? How can you reduce interruptions from equipment calibrations and maintenance?

The more detailed your process is, the more complex your lab workflow is likely to be. However, it is best to think about your lab workflow efforts as an ongoing journey of optimization rather than finite destination. As a final word of advice- be sure to include your staff in the workflow development process. This will help you get buy-in from stakeholders and give you valuable insight for establishing the optimal lab workflows.