For the past two years, Dagdeviren and her lab manager, David Sadat, have run the Conformable Decoders Group using “lean lab” management principles, working closely with MIT’s Environment, Health and Safety Office (EHS). Every item in their lab has an assigned function and location, and there are strict procedures in place describing how everything is to be used, put away, and replenished. As a result, it took the lab just 15 minutes to close down operations on March 13.

“Given that everyone in our lab is very well-trained with these checklists, everyone took care of their own experiments and the tools that they use. I was then able to spend the rest of the time before the campus shutdown communicating with my students, motivating them and preparing them mentally for this upcoming period of time,” says Dagdeviren, an assistant professor in MIT’s Media Lab.

The lean lab approach has had other benefits as well, including cost savings, increased productivity, and a strong safety record, says Dagdeviren, who reported these effects in a paper appearing today in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems. The paper also offers guidance on how other labs might implement this approach.

Sadat and Tolga Durak, the managing director of MIT EHS, are also authors of the paper.

Maximizing resources

Dagdeviren joined MIT’s Media Lab as an assistant professor in 2017. As a junior faculty member, she had limited funding and space, so she wanted to maximize her use of the resources that she had. Her lab, the Conformable Decoders Group, develops novel materials and devices that can interact with the environment and with living organisms to detect phenomena such as heartbeats, neural activity, and temperature, among many others.

She spent nine months designing and building her 1,000-square-foot cleanroom—a type of workspace whose environmental conditions are rigorously controlled to avoid contamination of experiments. She hired Sadat as a senior lab manager, and he suggested implementing an organizational strategy known as 5S. Sadat and Dagdeviren subsequently partnered with EHS on the lean lab project.

This method, which originated in Japan, is used in industries such as auto manufacturing but has not been widely applied in academic settings. The system consists of five guiding principles to organize a workspace for efficiency and effectiveness: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain.