Which LIMS Implementation Process is Right for You?

Laboratories not only have different functional needs that their LIMS solution must meet but they also have system implementation needs that can have a profound affect on the success of the LIMS implementation.

Even if you succeed in choosing the right LIMS for your lab, the implementation process can make the difference between success and failure. There are basically three types of implementation processes:

Let’s rank them from the least expensive to the most expensive processes.

Packaged – A Packaged LIMS Solution with a Packaged Implementation

The “packaged” approach involves selecting a LIMS that delivers itself as a packaged product that is coded for a very specific purpose. Many hard coded LIMS are perfect for this type of implementation. The packages were built for a specific purpose, and the configuration and customization options are significantly restricted. On the upside, these systems are less expensive, and they implement rather quickly. On the downside, they are less flexible, and you will most likely have to adapt your processes to meet the software. These types of solutions are ideal for small laboratories that are able to adapt to the implemented solution with very little disruption. Examples of laboratories that are ideal for this approach are: small commercial testing labs, small municipal/government labs, small manufacturing quality control labs, and clinical reference labs.

Obviously, this is a broad generalization of representative laboratories, but you may have a feeling for what type of lab you have and how able you are to adapt your lab to the implemented software. The rewards for laboratory flexibility will be lower cost and faster implementation. If, on the other hand, your lab is not willing to adapt, and you select this solution, you will be left with the feeling that you have purchased a Ford Model T car. In reality, the solution is far from a Model-T; it is just that you bought the wrong product and implementation process for the job.

Collaborative – A Data-Driven LIMS Solution with a Collaborative Implementation

The “collaborative” approach involves selecting a LIMS that delivers itself as a flexible solution that adapts to your laboratory needs as opposed to your lab adapting to the software. The first thing to know is that a LIMS package that is hard coded to a particular function is not adaptable and flexible. The words “hard coded”, says it all. No LIMS vendor will ever admit that their product is hard coded, so you will have to put the systems you are considering to the test by having detailed demonstrations of the product that show how flexible it is to adaptation.

Laboratories that are ideal for this process are larger in size and more complicated with ever changing needs. They will have staff that are dedicated to laboratory IT functions and are probably already operating a LIMS in one form or another. If they are looking to replace a LIMS, it is probably because they have outgrown the current LIMS due to its lack of flexibility. The collaborative process is ideal here because the lab needs to be self sufficient with the LIMS, and they need to be able to reconfigure the LIMS any time they want without having to depend on a third party like the LIMS vendor. The lab’s needs change regularly, and it is not sufficient to have a solution that is hard coded. This type of lab needs a data driven application that adapts by simple configuration without the need to modify or create source code. They need a solution that can adapt to their processes on their schedule.

The downside to this type of implementation is that it is nearly impossible to get a fixed price, fixed scope quote. Implementation work will be shared between the lab staff and the LIMS supplier staff. They will work as one team but with segmented duties. Without strong customer project management by someone who is very knowledgeable in both the lab processes as well as the LIMS technologies, the cost could get out of control. There is one popular LIMS vendor that uses the Collaborative approach almost exclusively, and you will find many job opportunities for contract consultants to work with the end client on implementing that LIMS solution. This is not a bad thing or a good thing; it is simply a fact that should be taken into consideration when evaluating the costs of implementation.

The upside to this type of implementation is that costs are controlled entirely by the LIMS customer (the lab). The lab controls what functionality it will implement and on what timetable. The lab has the ultimate in implementation control. In many cases, where the project management of the lab is practical and experienced, the costs for this type of implementation are far lower than even the least expensive “packaged” approach. Another benefit is that the lab becomes self-sufficient with the solution and can adapt quickly to change. This solution and implementation approach will give a longer life expectancy than a solution that is hard coded and implemented for a specific purpose. The exception to this is if your lab remains fairly static in that it will not go beyond its testing bounds.

This implementation method is rarely, if ever, suitable for government labs. First, government labs have to change, but only within their discipline, by keeping up with technology or regulations. They rarely take on new functions. In fact, in today’s competitive environment, government lab functions are being outsourced more often to private labs. Of course, that is a swinging pendulum depending on the winds of politics. The second problem for government is that they do not have open check books. They must have fixed prices and scopes. They cannot add permanent or contract staff easily for implementation. While government could benefit from this type of implementation process, the purchasing nature of the government lab prevents this type of process from even being an option. Federal initiatives have evolved to make purchasing more flexible and cost effective, and so the Feds can do this type of implementation process sometimes, but state and local governments almost never do things like this.

Turn-key – A Fixed Price, Fixed Scope, Turn-key Implementation Process

The “turn-key” approach involves selecting a LIMS that is delivered without respect to being a packaged solution or a data driven, highly configurable solution. A Turn-key system is one where the LIMS vendor supplies a system based upon a rigid defined scope that has an equally rigid and defined price. The advantages to this type of implementation are that you know what you are going to pay, and you know exactly what you are going to get. You do not need to have staff assigned to perform work on the project. These are huge advantages.

The downside to this implementation approach can be exactly the same as the advantages. First, there is no cost to control. The price quoted is the price you pay. You have no opportunity to reduce costs without change orders to reduce scope, and if you have ever purchased a new house, you know how additions and deletions of fixtures work. Changes are not a good value. They charge a lot to add something and give you little credit to delete something.

Second, you must have a clear definition of exactly what you are purchasing and a detailed specification in order to avoid disagreements about scope where things are ambiguous. Disagreements are inevitable, and so they must lead to compromise. In general, a good compromise is where neither party is happy. To avoid this, you must have a comprehensive specification. To get a comprehensive specification, hire an independent LIMS consultant to help you if you are required to get competitive bids. A good consultant will develop a comprehensive and detailed specification of your functional and implementation requirements. This adds to your LIMS costs.

Another downside is that the specification will generally only be able to specify for today’s needs since anticipating future needs has all the science of Nostradamus. Finally, you are simply going to pay more for your solution. Between the LIMS consultant and the LIMS vendor, you will pay more to have a turn-key solution because you are shifting all work and risk to the solution provider.

Which Process is Right for You?

Each of the 3 processes has their advantages and disadvantages, and I wish that I could say that one was better than the others, but that just isn’t the case. They are all very different from one another, and if you pick the wrong process, even having the right solution will make the overall LIMS implementation process difficult and prone to problems. The results will be dissatisfaction and missed expectations.

The implementation process you prefer is a good indication of what type of system will be the best fit for you. You must pick a solution that has both the right functional fit as well as the right implementation approach. A mismatch will be unfortunate for all concerned, and both the customer and vendor will share the blame.

I will speak for myself in saying that, if I owned a lab and were going to purchase and implement a LIMS, I would go with the collaborative solution. That is because I know LIMS technologies very well. I am experienced in running and managing technology projects, and I know my business and my processes. Finally, I want control over my success. I do not like to put my professional success into the hands of a vendor, regardless of who they are or their track record. It would be my luck to be one of their exceptions.

With me in control, I would be able to get an enterprise class solution for the price of a “packaged” solution. So why do I tell you this? You need to do your own self assessment to determine if the same approach would work for you. It is not an easy decision, but it is necessary. I, of course, have an advantage as the president of a LIMS company, but every lab manager who must purchase a LIMS has their own unique advantages that should be exploited to drive down costs and increase overall satisfaction with your purchase.

Regardless of which process works for you, you need to take responsibility for your success and not trust it to others.

The Ideal LIMS Provider

The ideal LIMS provider will offer LIMS solutions for all three implementation options and will not try to fit all customers into the same process. The LIMS provider needs to know your budget, the size of your lab, the ability of your lab to adapt to the software or vice versa, your functional needs, and your staff levels available to participate in the implementation process.

The LIMS provider should learn about your needs and document those needs in a proposal that specifies the right product and implementation process with the right guarantees for joint success. There are many consultants who can help you with this process of LIMS evaluation, and most all of the vendors offer the LIMS consulting as a free service in order to provide the best proposal they can. However, “to use a LIMS consultant or not to use a LIMS consultant, that is the question.” But that question will have to be covered under another future article.

An independent LIMS consultant is not free, and it adds to the overall LIMS cost regardless of return. One way to evaluate LIMS vendors and their proposed solutions is to see how well they perform the needs analysis and how well the resulting proposal addresses those needs and guarantees. This does not cost anything, and it is a  good early indicator of the type of service you will get during implementation. A good, thorough proposal can tell you a lot.