Process improvement usually begins with a significant problem.  And, it is usually one that has been acknowledged as a problem for a long time.  All too common, a lot of excuses can prevent its solution, until it finally threatens to take down the company.  

Below is an account of how a large medical laboratory faced a problem that threatened the laboratory’s continued existence.

Process Improvement Initiative Launched

A large medical laboratory launched a process improvement initiative in which Jacqueline Barnes played a leading role in two ways: first as an employee with the title of “Process Improvement Specialist”; and second, as the other half of Marsh and Barnes, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in quality assurance, control, and improvement.

At that time, the laboratory had a staff of 550 and annual revenue of $55,000,000.  The laboratory provided diagnostic testing in the United States and other various countries.  In spite of such success, lost specimens had been a known problem at the laboratory for years. 

The problem persisted until an irreplaceable organ specimen went missing.  At that point, the administration mounted a “go-for-broke” process improvement initiative across all involved departments. 

The administration began by hiring a few process improvement consultants who assisted management in designing an overall process improvement strategy.  The strategy included hiring new process improvement staff, reassigning existing staff to the task, and working broadly on other company-wide quality improvement efforts. Ms. Barnes worked with every department.


New Maps, New Procedures, New Training

The specialists began by working with the “process owners” to map their own processes from beginning to end.  Once all of the maps were completed, compiled and approved, the specialists worked with the process owners to write and formalize new procedures for each process.  Then, all of the involved staff and managers were trained on the new procedures.  And, the procedures were implemented. 

Engineered Solutions

While many of the improvements involved procedures, several required engineering solutions to equipment.  For example, in the process improvement sessions it was found that some specimen tubes got lost when they rolled out of their coolers and out of sight in the back of the couriers’ vehicles as they were being transported to the laboratory.

One of the engineered solutions was to buy new vehicles with seamless holding areas where specimens could not get lost.  Another practical solution was a bar coding system that enabled tracking of the specimens from collection to receipt in the laboratory. 


With all of these resources applied to solving this problem, it might be surprising to learn that the improvement initiative spanned two years. Actually, given that the problem involved several departments and hundreds of employees, two years is a very short time for a successful resolution to such a complex problem.

Success....Lost Specimens a Rare Event! 

With these improvements in place, the loss of specimens became a rare event.  In the end, these and numerous other improvements throughout the company set the stage for tremendous growth, enabling the laboratory to retain customers while enhancing their customer service and revenue.