Univ. Laboratory Exploits Statistical Software To Speed Up Research and Testing

Performing scientific testing and research in a timely and efficient manner is a top priority for laboratories worldwide. At a major mid-western university's Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, technicians specialize in the prevention of animal diseases and identification of illnesses. Crucial to the lab's success is the turn-around time of medical samples -- how long it takes to obtain results after samples are submitted. If technicians deliver test results too late, an animal's life could be jeopardized. Mina F. Wright, laboratory manager and assistant director of lab services, had received several complaints about the turn-around times in some departments. So she decided to conduct a statistical analysis of all lab work to determine what was going wrong. Examining Delays "We tried to pinpoint exactly what the biggest causes of delays were," says Wright. To do that, she enlisted the help of MINITAB statistical software, published by MINITAB, Inc., in State College, Pa. Wright entered a year's worth of data on factors that could affect turn-around time, such as late sample retrievals, wrong identification numbers, equipment failure, personnel shortages and the need for additional testing. The software did the rest of the work. MINITAB integrates process-control capabilities with a comprehensive set of statistical methods. Users can access a wide variety of Pareto diagrams, Shewhart-type control charts and problem-solving tools. The program runs on over 35 platforms, including minicomputers, mainframes, workstations and microcomputers. Wright used Version 8 of MINITAB, an IBM PC-compatible 286 and printed graphs on a dot-matrix printer. (Since then, she has acquired a 486 computer and upgraded to MINITAB 10, which, among other things, offers enhanced data-import capabilities, more 2D and 3D graphic options, and new tool palettes.) Visualizing Results Over a period of two months, Wright developed several Pareto diagrams tracking the progress of samples. By doing so, she learned that a shortage of personnel seemed to be the main cause of delays. She then took steps to reorganize personnel so they could work on multiple tasks rather than specializing in one area. Wright says that simply being aware of the problem proved beneficial. "Our staff's confidence level increased immensely after the study because we realized that work performance wasn't at fault." Furthermore, as the lab's workload continued to expand, officials immediately knew how best to cope with the demand: by hiring another technician. The researchers are told to focus on quality instead on quantity. Today, turn-around times are faster than ever. "The main thing is we are able to make a diagnosis quicker, and that is important ... especially in a life-threatening situation."

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.