When we all started school for our Medical Laboratory Science programs, we learned everything we needed to know to become great bench techs. We learned how to identify bacteria, why you can’t run certain chemistry tests on a hemolyzed blood sample, the importance of check cells in type and screens. The list goes on. As we became better bench techs and gained experience, we were given more responsibility. Sometimes this was in an official capacity by getting promoted into a supervisory position and sometimes this was in an unofficial capacity when our boss “volun-told” us to head up a special project. In either of these situations, our MLS degrees only vaguely touched upon how to manage these new situations.
What happens when we find ourselves in a situation when we have to validate a new instrument? Or when we have to transition to a new LIS? Or if we have to build an entirely new lab? As Medical Laboratory Scientists, we know the components that go into all these things, but where our blind spot may lie is the proper way to organize these tasks to successfully complete a project. This is where concepts from the business world can come in handy in the lab world, particularly the concept of project management.
This post will explain the broad concepts of project management, why it’s important as well as give overviews of project management methodologies that will be most useful in the lab. Subsequent blog posts will give more in-depth explanations about each method and where they are most useful.
What is Project Management?
So what exactly is project management? Well, first let’s define what a project is. A project is a temporary activity that is undertaken with the end goal being the attainment of a unique product, service, or result. Project management is the practice of applying knowledge, skills, and tools to complete a project to certain specifications. In the laboratory world, a project could be something as simple as completing maintenance on an instrument to something as complex as building a brand new laboratory.
Why is Project Management Important?
Project management is important because it helps a supervisor plan, mitigate risks, keep to budget, make deadlines, and overall be more efficient. With the laboratory staffing being the way it is (short), it’s helpful for optimal functioning of the lab that any project initiated goes off without a hitch. The only thing worse than an unsuccessful laboratory project is to realize at the end the only reason the project was unsuccessful was due to something simple that was overlooked. All that work is down the drain and you have to start the entire project over, wasting time and ultimately money. Proper project planning and management can help avoid this.
Starting any project can seem overwhelming at first. How do you know where to begin? How long should the project take? How much should it cost? In short, how do you figure all this out and put it together?
Project management, like the laboratory, has a set of standards and principles that can help guide you when designing a new project. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) is the set of standards developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI). There are many different project management methodologies but the basic principles, standards, and phases remain the same throughout all of them. Listed below are the five (5) phases of project management.
Phase 1 – Initiating
This is the first phase of any project. In this phase, you define what you want to do, develop a business case, and get the project approved. Basically, during this time you are trying to develop a high-level understanding of the project. During this phase, tasks typically include performing a feasibility study, creating a project charter, identifying key stakeholders, and selecting project management tools.
All this business jargon may be sounding a little scary right now and it seems that it has no place in the lab. The reader would be wrong in assuming this. Let’s look at a laboratory example.
Upon reviewing monthly reports, the supervisor finds that HIV turnaround times consistently go beyond the one (1) hour designated turnaround times. The problem is quickly identified. The specimen is shared between two departments – hematology and microbiology (via rapid test). Hematology performs the CBC first and then is supposed to alert microbiology that they have a specimen for HIV testing. However, this communication between departments is not always shared. The laboratory supervisors look at all the options and determine that the best course of action would be to move HIV testing to the hematology department.
The first thing to do is a feasibility study, which basically means determining how likely the project is to succeed. For a small project like this, the feasibility study would be very simple and would probably just involve looking at laboratory volume reports for HIV testing and CBCs.
Once the feasibility study is done the next thing to do is create a project charter. Project charter sounds fancy but it just means give a short summary of the project including how will it be carried out, what the objectives are, and who is involved. Most labs, especially if they are CAP-accredited already, have these things spelled out in their policies and procedures.
Identifying key stakeholders just means figuring out which people have a vested interest in this project. In this example, it would be the micro and hematology techs, the micro and hematology supervisors, lab administration, and clinical departments requesting this testing.
Lastly, in this scenario selecting project management tools needs to happen. This could be anything from using specially designed project management software to simply coordinating via email with other lab supervisors.
Phase 2 – Planning
The second phase of any lab project is the planning phase. In this phase, the first thing to do is create a project plan. When creating a project plan the leader should meet with project stakeholders, define goals and deliverables, create a project schedule, complete a risk assessment, and plan a project kickoff meeting.
Using the above example for HIV turnaround times, let’s translate this into lab speak. Let’s say the project leader is the microbiology supervisor. It would be their responsibility to meet with everyone involved with the project (stakeholders) to get feedback on the best way to transition the test from one department to the other.
Goals are developed out of the stakeholders’ needs, and deliverables are the things that need to be produced to meet these goals. In this example, goals would be to train all appropriate staff on the new test, transfer all equipment and supplies to the new lab, and ultimately decrease testing turnaround time.
A risk assessment in this situation would consist of looking at every step of the process to determine where things could go wrong. Examples would be delivering the specimen to the lab, skill level of techs performing the test, communicating results to appropriate departments, etc.
Phase 3 – Executing
This is the phase where the bulk of the project is happening. Most of the time, money and people are pulled in at this phase. In other words, the team is actually completing the work of the project. This phase is usually signified by a kick-off meeting outlining why the project is being undertaken, who’s responsible for what, and how problems will be communicated.
Looking at our lab example, this would include activities such as training the technologists on the test, moving reagents from one storage space to another, making room for a testing area in the other lab, etc. The project kick-off meeting is what is known as a staff in-service in the lab world. This in-service should include all the things described in the previous paragraph.
Phase 4 – Monitoring and Controlling
This phase happens alongside the execution phase. During this phase, the project manager monitors all the processes, ensuring that all parts are moving seamlessly toward the endpoint. If any issues or problems arise, the project manager needs to make adjustments to mitigate them.
In the lab example, this occurs during implementation of the new process and the days after. The laboratory supervisor should be checking in with the technologists to ensure that they are performing the test correctly and that all critical results are being reported to appropriate departments. The supervisor should also be checking in with other departments to ensure that they are not having issues and monitoring turnaround times for testing. If there are any issues, this would be the time to correct them.
Phase 5 – Closing
This is exactly what it says. This phase is the end of the project. In this phase, loose ends are tied up and the project is handed off to the client. Other steps taken include organizing all necessary documents, taking inventory of deliverables, and having a post-project discussion regarding issues that may have occurred.
In our laboratory example, project closure would include filing all training and competency papers in employee personnel files and making sure any extra validations have been signed off. The deliverable, in this case, would be turnaround time, so the supervisors would have to check daily turnaround time reports to ensure that turnaround times are being met. Usually, in the lab, post-project discussions are pretty informal and may consist of just simply emailing department heads to check in to see how things are going.
This next section will give a brief overview of different project management methodologies. This is not an all-inclusive list, but the most likely methods to be used in the lab. Subsequent blog posts will go in-depth about each method.
Definition: A method of project management that requires you to complete one step of the project before advancing to the next.
Best time to use: Used during large projects like construction or manufacturing when it is too expensive to change anything after the fact.
Example of use: Remodeling or implementing a new lab.
Critical Path Method
Definition: A method of project management where the goal is to get the project done in the least amount of time.
Best time to use: Best with smaller or mid-sized projects.
Example of use: Instrument validation
Definition: A method of project management that is collaborative, flexible, and fast.
Best time to use: Used extensively in IT projects.
Example of use: Implementing a new LIS
Other Things to be Aware Of
Here are some quick notes regarding aspects of project management you should keep in mind.
How to Set Project Goals
S.M.A.R.T or C.L.E.A.R. Goals are guides used to set up goals for a project. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. CLEAR stands for collaborative, limited, emotional, appreciable, and refinable. While these two methods of writing goals are slightly different, the end result should be that the project has a set of easily understandable, specific, and achievable goals.
How to Use Different Methodologies
These project management methodologies aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes part of the project may be more suited for one methodology whereas a later part of the project may be more suited for another. This is where understanding the different methodologies becomes important. The project manager needs to be able to recognize when each of these methods is best applicable.
Most of the lab world is familiar with these two terms and they are often mentioned alongside project management methodologies. The difference is that LEAN and Six Sigma are continuous process improvement methods. This means that they are ongoing and do not have an official end date whereas a project has a clear beginning, middle, and end. LEAN and Six Sigma are also overarching, spanning the entire department. Projects are generally more focused on a specific small group of people.
Applying project management methodologies to the laboratory can help improve workflow and save time and money. All of these things are extremely important in a cash-strapped industry that is short-staffed. A mismanaged project can lead to extra work, overtime, and frustration. This post was just an overview of different project management methodologies. Subsequent posts will take a more in-depth look at each of the three (3) presented methodologies, so check back often!