Academics are often told by critics that they live in a bubble. Cushioned from the harsh realities and fast paced environments of their industrial counterparts. To some, it seems academia works at a slow, inefficient pace and is wrought with bureaucracy. But academics function in a highly competitive culture where financial resources are scarce but the demand for scientific knowledge is higher than ever. There is no question that the landscape is changing.
While academic laboratories aren’t driven by stock prices and profit margins, they are propelled forward by other motivators. Staying relevant and eligible for funding requires consistently publishing papers, which requires experiments, data, analysis, and personnel to conduct and write about the findings. All of these activities utilize considerable financial resources. Low funding rates, decreasing available federal funds, and unprecedented rates of scientific literature publication has academic lab groups trying to do more with less. In order for PIs to keep up with the workload while maintaining scientific integrity, they must create an environment of high productivity and performance.
Now, more than ever, it is critical that academics adopt some of the profit-driven practices of industrial leaders. One particularly useful method is the implementation of tracking and documenting performance metrics. Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are analytical measurements of progress towards a strategic or operational goal. By measuring and monitoring KPIs, it quickly becomes apparent where bottlenecks lie and where improvements need to be made. The metrics can include financial projections, resource usage, adherence to safety standards, cost or production, and efficiency, to name a few. It is critical that KPIs follow these guidelines:
- Be well-defined and quantifiable.
- Be communicated throughout your organization.
- Be crucial to achieving your goal.
- Be applicable to the work of your organization
- Be measured over various time scales
At the Peccoud Group, the laboratory is viewed as data producing factory. The first output from a lab heavily involved in molecular biology, such as ours, are physical samples. Moving down the assembly line, these samples are converted to data. Finally, this data is polished and packaged into written papers which are eventually published and become scientific literature. These publications are our final ‘product’. Publishing papers gives visibility to the lab, increases notoriety, and increases the chances of grants applications being awarded.
As an organization, 8 KPIs that are applicable to our work were chosen to indicate our efficiency, productivity, adherence to self-imposed and university safety standards.
- Samples per month: This metric indicates our organization’s production of samples on a per month basis.
- Defects & Quality errors per month: Using lean manufacturing methods, our laboratory categorically tracks errors in order to identify areas of waste that contribute to lost financial resources.
- Workspace organization audit: Audit scores indicate the level to which the laboratory is adhering to self-imposed standards based on the 5S lean manufacturing methodology which reduces waste, enhances safety, reduces defects & costs, and increases production.
- Bi-yearly building audit: This metric indicates how well the laboratory is adhering to university safety standards. Audits are performed twice per year.
- Salary Dollars per sample: This efficiency metric reports the financial resources being used to create each sample on a monthly basis.
- Funding Rate: The number of grants applied for versus those awarded in the last 6 months indicates the performance of our grant applications.
- Papers Published per month: Papers being the final ‘product’ in the laboratory assembly line, this metric indicates the lab’s productivity and ability to produce quality paper that are published. Calculated on a monthly basis.
After assembling these metrics, the resulting graphs were places on a board where all employees can easily see the lab’s performance. This constant reminder serves a number of important purposes. First, the KPIs convey that the success of the laboratory is a team effort. While undergraduates aren’t involved in writing papers and submitting grant applications, it is immediately evident that their work in the lab efficiently producing samples leads to data. This data is then used by Post-docs and the PI to craft a scientific story which is sent for publication. Second, these metrics instill a sense of pride in employees. They are excited to be contributing to a lab that gets good marks and is advancing. Thirdly, KPIs enhance the culture of responsibility by instilling an emphasis on performance & efficiency. It keeps these qualities in the forefront of everyone’s mind, which permeates into the ways they work and how tightly they adhere to SOPs. In a broader sense, these metrics hold everyone in the team publicly accountable for the success or failure.
The KPI board has not only served to enhance the laboratory culture, but it has gotten attention from numerous colleagues for its novelty. The beauty of KPIs is that they are entirely customizable to any industry or objective. In the academic world of ever-increasing competitiveness for attention, funding, and prestige, adopting industrial principles could be the next step on the road to creating a well-functioning, productive lab that is churning out papers and where the stress of funding is thing of the past.