Struggles of Today's Mid-Sized Lab or Why I'd Rather Be Fishing

By Jeff Szymanski
A few weeks back, my dad, my son and I ventured out to enjoy an afternoon of fishing on the lake. As the morning waned on, my mind drifted, as is often the case, to worries about the laboratory. These were not so much catastrophic worries; such as will we survive, but worries of a different nature–those persistent, nagging and ever-changing concerns we are plagued with, simply due to being a mid-sized laboratory in today’s competitive environment.

It goes without saying, that all laboratories today, regardless of their size, struggle with challenges that would confront any operation positioned in a hyper-competitive business climate. Due to their size and volume, however, mid-sized laboratories do face a more diverse set of unique problems.

As we begin to compare, today’s smaller laboratories (processing under 150 Rxs a day) usually fill a niche in a small market. They tend to have a more loyal and stable following and have fewer expectations of them. (I say this with all due respect, and from the perspective of having once been a small laboratory.) For example, few ECPs would expect a smaller laboratory to have onsite AR capabilities, to distribute and stock frames, bulbs, and other accessories, to have access to select premium brand name lens lines, or to act as “consultants” to eye care professionals. Finally, by niche marketing and focusing on higher margin customers, net profits can be dramatically increased. In contrast, today’s larger laboratories (processing over 1,000 Rxs a day) are best positioned to take advantage of the economies of scale. While their sheer size may make them somewhat cumbersome and inflexible, they also invariably have more capital to invest and, therefore, operate in a more secure environment. They remain less vulnerable when losing a few “good” accounts and can more efficiently handle human resource issues–hiring, firing, training, discipline and absenteeism.

Because many laboratories processing over 1,000 Rxs a day are also corporate owned, access to new and expensive technology is neither as difficult to come by, nor is it as critical that the correct purchase be made.

Which brings us to the struggles of today’s mid-sized laboratories–uniquely positioned, blessed in many ways, and oh-so-challenged in others. Compared to their counterparts, mid-sized laboratories (processing roughly 500 Rxs a day) simply face a more frightening set of issues.

To begin, at a certain volume more personnel is needed to effectively run a laboratory. This inevitably brings about more and more human resource issues–issues, which are less prevalent within a small laboratory, and usually taken care of by separate human resource manager in a large laboratory. By contrast, in a mid-sized laboratory, human resources are usually divided up between the lab manager and other supervisory positions, and unfortunately, are rarely given the amount of time and energy they need and deserve. Absenteeism alone can single-handedly reduce production, lower moral and hinder customer service. A small laboratory will usually not have the percentage of employees out on any given day and large laboratories can more easily fill the gap of missing personnel.

Technology and how a laboratory keeps pace with advances, presents one of the other major concerns for a mid-sized laboratory. “Free form” generators and robotic edgers only scratch the surface of what is needed for the laboratory of the future to be successful. Due to lower expectations, a small laboratory can hold off on such expensive upgrades. On the other end of the spectrum, a larger laboratory that simply has more resources can more easily afford to add this technology. With high expectations and often-limited resources, a mid-sized laboratory MUST find a way to embrace and incorporate emerging technologies, all the while being conscientious of the almighty bottom line. This then brings about a whole new set of concerns: Which models to buy, which process to embrace, how best to prioritize needs. It then becomes critical to avoid the temptation of taking on too high a debt load in an attempt to fuel growth.

Automation, inventory control, positioning amongst suppliers, training, and laboratory alliances—all these issues and many more confront laboratories of all sizes. These issues, however, seem to be more daunting for a laboratory whose sheer size fosters great expectations from their customer base, while at the same time limits resources devoted towards their needs.

There is no desire here to minimize the daily difficulties that both large and small laboratories face, only to point out, that size does matter and can influence and affect the abilities of a laboratory. Challenges aside, I feel that a mid-sized laboratory is best positioned to succeed in the future. With the ability to know all of their customers by name, while at the same time having access to everything the industry has to offer, a mid-sized laboratory can service its customer base very effectively. But it will not be easy. A commitment to excellence must exist within the laboratory. It must exist at all levels, from production to customer service and sales.

As our industry evolves, the challenges we face will never evaporate. They are, to some degree, an essential part of the business world. Challenges keep us healthy and spur on creative thinking and superior problem solving abilities. Perspectives are always relative. Surely, both large and small laboratories could make the case that THEY are more challenged by their size, and perhaps we will never really know who is right. Either way, my colleagues and I will continue to worry about our businesses, as entrepreneurs—this is only natural. I can only hope that it does not affect my ability to catch more fish!

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May/June LabTalk 2017