A laboratory information management system (LIMS) can provide tremendous value to a lab. It can enhance efficiency and productivity, improve data quality, save time, and ensure compliance with traceability and auditability. However, to get the best return on investment, you need to ensure that it’s set up to manage your lab’s entities and workflows properly.
What are entities and workflows?
In a lab environment, entities are the objects that you want to track and manage. They include items such as samples, tests, instruments, protocols, personnel, and more. The lab’s day-to-day business operations, regulations, and patient health all require the diligent tracking of entities.
Workflows are the sequences of steps and tasks that you perform on your entities. For example, you likely need to register samples, conduct analyses, perform quality control, and generate reports. Each of these processes should be documented with standard operating procedures (SOPs) and followed consistently by anyone who performs the task.
Why it’s critical to manage entities and workflows within the LIMS
A lab’s reputation and business success rely on delivering accurate results. The best way to ensure this happens is to track entities and workflows using the LIMS — the digital backbone of the lab.
Specifically, using the LIMS for this task can help your lab:
- Ensure the accuracy and reliability of the data and results. Accurate management and tracking can help your lab avoid errors, contamination, and loss of samples or data.
- Comply with the industry regulatory standards. Tracking entities and workflows supports traceability and auditability, which are required by regulatory authorities. It also helps to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the customers, patients, or donors who provide the samples or data.
- Optimize the efficiency and productivity of the lab operations. Monitoring and managing workflows, inventory, equipment, and resources can help labs automate and streamline the data collection, analysis, and reporting processes.
- Facilitate collaboration and innovation. If your lab supports open science, you will want to be able to share and exchange data and results with other labs, organizations, or stakeholders. Tracking entities and workflows aids with this goal, and helps to advance novel research and the development of innovations.
Six areas to consider for managing entities and workflows in the LIMS
Whether your lab is implementing a new LIMS or customizing an existing LIMS to better meet the demands of daily operations, there are several approaches you can take to ensure all your entities and workflows are tracked appropriately.
1. Entity mapping and workflow analysis
An important step is to map all the entities currently in your lab. Generally, this list includes things like instruments, samples, tests, protocols, and personnel. You might also include entities that you anticipate adding or changing in the future. For example, if you plan to add a new liquid handler, you should add this to your list. You will also want to document how these entities are used within your workflows, and how they interact, connect, and influence each other.
Analyzing the workflows themselves is also critical for setting up the LIMS correctly. When you perform this analysis you might also identify areas for improvement, in terms of efficiency, quality, and safety. Workflow analysis can also help your lab reduce errors, lower costs, and increase productivity. If your lab already has written SOPs, workflow analysis can help you confirm that these procedures still accurately represent the work being done in the lab. We recommend visualizing your workflows for maximum benefit.
2. System selection
In previous posts, we’ve talked about how to select a LIMS. Another aspect of the selection process involves understanding what your lab wants to achieve — whether that’s flexibility, scalability, or integration with current and new instruments. The entity mapping and workflow analysis above will help you narrow your LIMS options to those systems that are capable of managing your lab’s entities and workflows. Many labs choose to purchase an off-the-shelf LIMS and then modify it to meet their needs. Others find that building a custom solution is a better fit.
Whichever solution you choose, you can implement the LIMS to support your lab’s unique workflows. For example, you can use custom fields to track data relevant to your lab’s setup, set alerts to notify staff when corrective action needs to be taken, develop automations to improve workflow efficiency, or configure customized reports.
3. Data model design or ontology
A key element of any LIMS implementation is the representation of the structure and relationships of the data in the system — including data about entities and workflows. A data model is the most common form, but we recommend labs use a standardized ontology.
Data models tend to rigidly document a formal hierarchy for data for a particular software system, whereas using an ontology enables other systems to read and understand your LIMS data. This is crucial if you want to share data across systems within your lab or with other organizations.
4. Implementation and migration plan
During your LIMS implementation and migration, the entity and workflow design work you have completed will be tested. Your plan should leave room for making any necessary adjustments as the implementation progresses.
At Semaphore, we follow a seven-phase process to ensure that all the system requirements, entities, and workflows are documented and executed, and that everything is tested thoroughly and validated before going live.
5. Training and change management
If you want to be sure that entities and workflows are tracked properly, you also need to ensure that lab staff are trained on the LIMS in your lab (with all its customizations and integrations) and that strict change management processes are followed.
A well-implemented LIMS should help to ensure workflows are followed correctly. However, changes or updates to the software need to be thoroughly tested and validated to ensure no errors are introduced.
6. Ongoing optimization
After spending significant effort on a LIMS implementation, it might seem like you can ‘set it and forget it’. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As your lab business, processes and workflows evolve, the LIMS software will need to be updated to match.
You will want to ensure you are always using the latest version of the software, to safeguard your entity and workflow data. Also, you will want to add integrations for new equipment and automations where possible to reduce the chance of human errors.
Laboratory software can be incredibly complex. If you’d like help with implementing a LIMS so that it tracks all your entities and workflows properly, please get in touch. Our team follows software engineering best practices and has years of experience working with labs like yours.