Poor inventory management can lead to wastes of time, samples, and financial resources. Here is an example worth $495.
What is wrong with the picture of this lonely tube in a box?
This biological specimen is the HEK293 cell line from ATCC. Anyone who has worked with cell lines knows that they should not be standing on a bench at room temperature. Cell lines should either be in liquid nitrogen or at 37°C. They should not be sitting on a bench waiting for someone to pay attention.
So, this tube no longer contains a valuable biological sample.
It just contains dead cells and it should be thrown away.
This is obviously a very unfortunate turn of events because it is wasteful.
The cell line cost $495. So, throwing this tube in the trash is like burning five $100 bills. Nobody in his right mind would do such a thing.
If this was not enough, getting this tube took some effort. Placing the order, getting it approved by procurement, receiving it, and onboarding the tube in our system took valuable time. We did not track the time but altogether there is probably more than an hour or two of labor involved in this project. If we assume a fully loaded hourly rate of $50 for all the people involved, we can add $100 or so to the loss.
Finally, there is the lost opportunity. Now that this tube is no longer available, it will take some time to get again and whatever we might need it for will be delayed. This loss is more difficult to quantify.
Some may think that this is overreacting. “Things like this happen all the time” they might say. "It is just a fact of life like airline delays and taxes".
That’s one way to look at this but there is another one that goes like this. These things do happen, all the time, but they should not.
While this is a minor incident, it should make anyone wonder why did it happen in the first place? What faulty laboratory management system caused this loss of productivity?
The cause: poor inventory management
We were in the process of revamping our biobanking processes. This involved updating our cell culture inventory which required labeling boxes from the liquid nitrogen dewar.
We pulled out one of the towers of the tower thinking that only one of the boxes contained biological samples. So, we handled these samples and left the other boxes on the bench to let them come back to room temperature so that they would be warm enough to apply new labels. The next day we realized that one of the boxes was holding this expensive sample.
At the time, our lab was not using a laboratory information management system. We had let our LIMS software license lapse because lower activity could not justify the fixed expense during the COVID lockdown period.
Our sample tracking strategy relied on a complex system of spreadsheets and a separate label printing software application. The problem is that it would make it very difficult to rapidly assess the content of storage boxes. So, our team relied on our collective memory rather than good record keeping.
By saving on sample tracking software, we incurred losses that might have been prevented if we had not discontinued our license.
The solution: be lean
With roots in manufacturing and lean management, GenoFAB would have prevented this situation.
Unlike a spreadsheet system, GenoFAB makes it easy to quickly assess the content of any box in laboratory freezers and liquid nitrogen storage. Rather than relying on our collective recollection of our dewar content, we could have looked at it in the storage browsers.
Freezer boxes would have been barcoded instead of being called using creative names like Box A, Box B, or Joe’s Box. By scanning the barcode, it would have been possible to retrieve the box content right at the bench and catch our mistake while we could still fix it.
More importantly, GenoFAB’s pay-per-use pricing structure would have saved us the hassle of moving away from a LIMS that we could no longer afford. The disruption caused by COVID was unusual. Even though a complete laboratory shutdown for months is exceptional, varying levels of activities are not. Periods of high levels of activities may require to add more people to the team for a short time. Similarly, periods of low activities because business is slow, a lab is remodeled, or any other reason may require to reduce expenses and reallocate resources.
The annual contracts proposed by LIMS vendors represent fixed expenses that are difficult to manage in periods of variable activity. On the other hand, the GenoFAB pricing model that is based on the number of records created better adapts to the financial resources available to support laboratory activities.