Selected Highlights of the Labs21 2010 Annual Conference

Application of Lean Tools for Improving Space Utilization for Existing R&D Laboratories

Carla Forrest, Ph.D., and Kathleen Larese, Sandia National Laboratories


Optimizing laboratory space utilization is critical for maximizing revenue, improving worker safety, and minimizing footprint and environmental impact. The research and development (R&D) culture offers unique challenges for creating agile, state-of-the art laboratories, while aligning to short- and long-term mission needs and capabilities. A life-cycle approach using Lean Six Sigma (LSS) tools offers technical and business teams at Sandia National Laboratories a methodology for strategically managing existing laboratories and creating competitive advantage through agility and planned investment.

Constraints in the federally funded R&D environment include wide variations in government agency requirements, funding, resources, and time. Infrastructure and space influence laboratory culture behavior, such as territorial space ownership, boundary issues, and resistance to improvement efforts. In general, researchers have little direction in quality laboratory management and do not understand the formal process for space allocation and utilization. Management styles often focus on projects versus operations, creating disharmony in standardized life-cycle management approaches. These challenges proved Sandia's business case to develop the right leadership model for managing inconsistencies across organizational boundaries. They needed a metrics-driven solution to increase revenue and decrease footprint.

Sandia's performance improvement team used an eight-step LSS methodology for improving the strategic management of laboratory capabilities. This process improvement method focused on reducing process waste, increasing productivity, improving performance, and delivering value to the customer. LSS methods were applied to understand how work was actually performed in R&D laboratory settings, identify opportunities for improvement, build arguments for business changes, provide the tools needed to create new processes, and support the team in implementing changes. The eight steps are:

1. Identify and prioritize opportunities:

  • Cost of underutilized laboratory space.
  • Environment, safety, and health concerns with crowded laboratories.
  • Growing pressure to reduce footprint.

2. Define the project:

  • Form core team.
  • Develop charter.
  • Define roles and responsibilities.
  • Determine action plan.
  • Develop space utilization principles.

3. Document and measure current reality:

  • Compile space chargeback costs.
  • Generate list of laboratory spaces.
  • Develop data gathering instrument.
  • Communicate process to managers and laboratory managers.

4. Analyze and identify waste:

  • Conduct interviews and perform LSS 6S scorecard assessment.
  • Generate stoplight metrics to rank improvement opportunities and estimate utilization.

5. Optimize flow and reduce friction:

  • Prioritize opportunities based on data and the space utilization principles developed.
  • Assign action items.
  • Develop operational objectives and performance measures.

6. Implement and validate:

  • Conduct space utilization improvement events.
  • Obtain feedback from team members and laboratory personnel for lessons learned.

7. Measure and sustain:

  • Perform annual space assessments.
  • Determine additional opportunities based on data, work flow, and laboratory function.
  • Measure, report, and assure performance.

8. Communicate and acknowledge success:

  • Brief management and stakeholders on progress.
  • Benchmark space utilization process with other divisions.

A value stream analysis was conducted to assess laboratory space across one division (~1,200 population). Efficient use of space analysis was conducted on the resulting data. Grading was based on whether or not space supported current projects, critical need to programs or operations, and the possibility of consolidation with other space with similar function. The results informed understanding of the current practices used to measure the capacity, condition, and utilization of existing laboratory space inventory within the division. This helped Sandia to develop decision tools for appropriately matching laboratory space to mission use, and ultimately a structure for managing current laboratory space inventory to mission needs.

The following example illustrates one of Sandia's improvement efforts using the eight-step LSS process, which was applied to a fuel cell fabrication research laboratory where fabrication and analytical operations occurred in adjacent laboratories. The laboratory staff designed the laboratory based on existing equipment and architecture and never analyzed work or process flow (Figure 1). In Figure 2, after applying 6S methodology, the laboratory improved flow and eliminated safety hazards.


Figure 1 laboratory schematic

Figure 1: Laboratory A and B before applying the eight-step Lean Six Sigma process.


Figure 2 laboratory schematic

Figure 2: Laboratory A and B after applying the eight-step Lean Six Sigma process.

Using the eight-step LSS process offered a solid direction for initial and long-range success. Proper management and alignment of laboratory capabilities within the organizational structure granted Sandia greater agility to serve mission customers. Proactive efforts were easier to manage and cost less time, money, and effort in the end.


As a quality business systems analyst for the Energy, Security, and Defense Technologies Division 6000, Carla Forrest, Ph.D., facilitates and leads team efforts to establish and monitor quality management systems, supports operational planning and deployment initiatives, and helps develop measurement systems to determine organizational improvement. She works closely with executive management, leaders, and staff to develop the right solutions or interventions, which will be executed with the right audiences at the right times and through the right means. Dr. Forrest participated in the Sandia Sponsored University Programs for 10 years while working full time, and upon graduation in 2006, she received distinction for her doctoral degree in organizational learning and strategic knowledge management from the University of New Mexico. She has several peer reviewed publications in the field of organizational performance and intangible asset management.

Kathleen Larese is a member of technical staff in the Global Physical Security Department at Sandia National Laboratories and has eight years of experience as a chemist (radiochemistry). As a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, she applies lean methodology to the management of laboratory space in her department. As the first person in her division to conduct a 5S event, she obtained support to apply continuous improvement tools to laboratory management strategies and space utilization for the Energy, Security, and Defense Technologies Division. Ms. Larese received her Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Western Washington University and completed a graduate fellowship in nuclear and radiochemistry at San Jose State University. She also holds an Masters of Business Administration from the University of New Mexico (UNM) and is completing a Masters of Science in biomedical science from the UNM School of Medicine.