Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have been around for some time now, and while their reputation for streamlining lab operations has improved, their reputation for implementation has not. Due to the complexity of the lab environment and the number of technologies involved, LIMS implementations can go on for months or even years. Worse yet, they can fail all together.
Clearly, selecting the wrong LIMS for your lab can contribute to a difficult implementation. However, some scholars would say that failed LIMS implementations have less to do with technology than they do with “human shortcomings.” 1 Lack of strategy and vision, poor requirements gathering, and inability to focus on the right areas are often the biggest culprits. To this list, I would also add lack of collaboration.
Undeniably, the human element plays a crucial role in the success of an implementation. I feel confident in saying this after helping nearly 50 labs with their LIMS implementations. But rather than focus on identifying the shortcomings, I prefer to focus on how labs can engage their staff members to bring this human element front and center for a successful implementation. Here, I outline some strategies that focus on a more human-centered approach: involving staff, giving them decision-making ability, and encouraging a sense of collaboration and higher purpose.
- Assign an onsite team who can focus on the implementation. Yes, you should expect that whatever LIMS vendor you choose will assign an implementation team. However, you should assign a team internally as well. This team’s responsibility will be to shepherd the LIMS into the organization, ensure that decisions have been made, ensure that people and technology resources are available, and so forth. In the case of a customer I recently worked with, who had a very successful implementation, they assigned a project sponsor, project manager, lab staff from each area, and one software developer. As a team, they represented the entire organization. What’s more is they had the authority to make decisions for their representative areas. As a group, they could make decisions and move the process forward.
- Develop a vision for the LIMS. Using the internal team you assemble, discuss and decide upon a clear vision for the LIMS. Will it help you with positive sample tracking? Reduce errors? Improve turnaround time? Whatever the vision, capture it and revisit it frequently. This vision will help you keep the project on track if scope creep or its sneaky cousin, scope seep, come to visit.
- Consider the big picture. Assigning a dedicated onsite team is a great start, but this team needs to be able to consider the big picture. In the case of the customer I recently worked with, each team member brought their area’s requirements and viewpoint to the table, but they also factored in the needs of other groups and checked their self interests at the door. Good listening skills and the ability to collaborate served them well. In some cases, sacrifices were made, but the end result was an optimized solution that each team could get on board with. People are complex creatures, and finding a group of people who can do this successfully is easier said than done, but certainly, if lab leadership can foster a sense of collaboration and higher purpose, it helps.
- Prepare and train staff early on. You can have the best vision and the most remarkable requirements and execution, but your implementation can still go awry if people aren’t on board with what’s happening. Implementing change in an organization that already has a process in place can be difficult and as a general rule, people resist change. One way to ease the transition is by including staff in the decision and describing the benefits in terms that resonate with them. Additionally, don’t wait until the system is fully implemented to begin training. Start early and encourage all staff to participate.
- Be open to change. A LIMS can capture workflows as labs currently have them, but it often doesn’t make sense to proceed this way when the LIMS can optimize them. This is often a stumbling block for many labs because it requires a different way of thinking and a willingness to change. In a recent implementation I took part in, the onsite team determined all that the LIMS could do and used its implementation as an opportunity to streamline their processes even further. They saw the possibilities and quickly went into exploit mode, using every nook and cranny of the LIMS. They were open to change, and it made all the difference in their implementation and end result.
- Prioritize to enable focus. When you try to do too many things at once, they might not get done, and they certainly won’t get done well! I recommend that labs, especially those who have a more complex implementation involving numerous workflows and integrations, divide their implementation into phases. This process involves making some difficult decisions about what’s most important, but it also gives people the luxury of focus. An added benefit is reaching milestones along the way and experiencing some quick wins. Who doesn’t like to see all of their hard work implemented in a brand new, highly-optimized workflow?
- Be realistic. Be realistic about dates and plan accordingly. Over any time period, you will have staff out for illness or out on vacation. Plan for these events and be realistic about how they affect your timeline. Realism also applies to how you view the LIMS in your organization. I often see labs fall into the trap of thinking that all problems — even those not directly related to the LIMS – will miraculously be solved because of the LIMS. A good LIMS will streamline lab operations and help you achieve your well thought-out vision, but no LIMS is going to be a total laboratory solution. You will still need that billing system or Health Information System (HIS), for example.
Of course, choosing the most appropriate LIMS for your lab is a great place to start in ensuring a great implementation. To learn more about LIMS selection, or to get our viewpoint on other subjects, visit our Library.
- Brookes, M. Managing a LIMS Project. Scientific Computing and Instrumentation Online (Nov 2001) Available www.scamag.com.