Operational Excellence and Knowledge Management in an R&D Laboratory Environment

Reflections from IQPC’s 6th Annual Smartlab Exchange, Berlin, February 2011

ELNs, LIMS, and LESs

IQPC kindly invited me to speak on Operational Excellence and Knowledge Management at this year’s Smartlab Exchange conference in Berlin.  Although I have been responsible for Biological Data Management and Laboratory Notebooks in an R&D environment during the course of my career, that was some time ago now, and the concept of electronic laboratory notebooks or ‘ELN’s was in its infancy, and so it was good to catch-up.

LIMS or Laboratory Information Management Systems on the other hand have been around somewhat longer so I was more familiar with these.  The application of ELNs and Laboratory Exchange Systems (LESs) in the GxP regulated Development environment is the newest of all, and both John Leonard (AstraZeneca) and Ken Rapp (VelQuest) helped give us a very good understanding of how this could (and does) work.

Getting comfortable with business language in an R&D Laboratory environment

The conference delegates were at various stages in their adoption of Knowledge Management and process improvement techniques (or Lean and Six Sigma), but had some good insights on effective change management, and so this was an interesting perspective during the course of the two and a half day programme.

Alan Foreman (Accenture) encouraged people to ‘get comfortable with business language’ such as business cases and productivity, ways to reduce cost and review operating models.  Patrick Jeufraux (Areva) gave us an interesting overview of how his organisation is bringing the support groups for process management, quality and business improvement closer together and integrating them into the business units for the various forms of renewable energy as an illustration of this.

The challenges of integration and data explosion

John Trigg (phaseFour Informatics) who chaired the conference and led one of the Think Tank sessions highlighted these 2 challenges for practitioners in the ELN and LIMS space.  We debated whether the lack of standards in Research in particular may have been a handicap in the development of IT applications, and whether increased outsourcing in the Pharmaceutical Industry e.g. through CROs (Contract Research Organisations) and Open Innovation might drive or accelerate the development of standards.

Cameron Neylon (Science and Technology Facilities Council) challenged us to ‘think like the web’.  Rather than trying to force diverse data and information into relatively inflexible databases, we should consider adopting Facebook, Amazon or Google Reader type models to aggregate the information, assuming that each item has its own unique URL.  He suggested that we could then build databases on the fly to manage questions, rather than the data.  He based his suggestions on Jon Udell’s blog Seven ways to think like the web

Workflow, process excellence and productivity in R&D Laboratories

Ken Rapp’s (VelQuest) and John Leonard’s (AstraZeneca) case studies beautifully illustrated how an understanding of processes and workflows in the lab, and an exploration of how they can be improved provide an excellent foundation for effective implementation of IT systems.  Working with lab scientists and QA they achieved increases in productivity, reductions in cycle time and lowering of compliance risks.

Chris Christodoulou (Medimmune) described how the R&D organisation in the UK and the US have adopted Operational Excellence as an enabler and a mindset for achieving Medimmune’s goals, and how Lean and Six Sigma tools such as 5S are helping them to ‘do things right first time’ and generally save time and money.

Change Management or effective implementation of ELN and LIMS

John Leonards’ case study of implementing electronic laboratory notebooks to facilitate technology transfer from Research scientists to Development Manufacturing illustrated how involving end-users to understand their issues and requirements, and then to pilot the proposed solution in an iterative way, together with engaging QA in solution development achieved 100% user acceptance as well as significant business benefits.  In a conversation with me afterwards he also described how starting with enthusiastic champions, peer influence and senior management support, together with a committed and flexible supplier also contributed to the original 100% user acceptance from Research scientists.

Gary Bouwman’s (Dow Chemical) Think Tank also drew out the many factors for success in implementation such as having clear business goals, measurable benefits, being aware of other factors that may affect implementation and the importance of having people on the team who really know the process.

Knowledge Management in the context of the R&D Laboratory

My fellow speaker, Mary Jensen (Baker Hughes), and Andrew Barendrecht (Innovation and Knowledge Consultant), between them expertly reviewed the key components for an effective KM ‘ecosystem’: people, process, content or information, technology and business or strategy (as well as compliance).  Mary Jensen gave a case study of how this applies in the oil and gas industry, whilst Andrew Barendrecht described how intelligent ‘cloud’ collaborations can operate using people in an Open Innovation and web 2.0 / web style framework.  Andrew indicated Steve Flynn’s ‘The Learning Layer’ as a good source of information for this approach.

Putting Operational Excellence, Knowledge Management and Change Management together in an R&D Laboratory context

My presentation “Applying knowledge management to operational excellence in a laboratory environment” discussed how Lean and Six Sigma could be applied to processes and the physical environment in the laboratory.  I picked up Mary Jensen’s knowledge ecosystem themes to show how Knowledge Management can contribute to the success of Operational Excellence, and also conclude with the Change Management related critical success factors for implementation.



  1. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting: enhancing team effectiveness using process improvement, knowledge management and change management.  Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman
  2. For an overview of electronic laboratory notebooks and how to implement them see John Trigg’s “Getting started with an Electronic Laboratory Notebook”, Scientific Computing World and phaseFour Informatics, 2011


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