Laboratory interior
Categories: COVID-19, Sanger Life18 May 202110.3 min read

Car manufacturing, cellular biology and COVID

The Cellular Generation and Phenotyping (CGaP) core facility at the Sanger Institute undertakes cell biology on a huge scale. A team of almost 40 staff work across multi projects focused on whole genome CRISPR screens, spatial genomics and creating stem cells and organoids. In 2020, they turned their laboratories into a COVID processing service in under two weeks. In this article, Rachel Nelson, head of the facility, reflects on managing and running science at scale, including the lessons she’s learned from industries as far apart as car manufacturing and Silicon Valley.

Rachel Nelson, Head of the Cellular Generation and Phenotyping facility at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

What sets the Sanger Institute apart is its ability to deliver research at scale. As a core facility at the Institute, it is our job to enable the delivery of novel, large-scale research, something that is easier said than done for a facility specialising in cell biology. The Cellular Generation and Phenotyping (CGaP) team and laboratories were established in 2012 to derive 100s of induced pluripotent stem cells, as part of the Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Initiative (HipSci). This was an undertaking quite apart from the Institute's usual endeavours.

It would be fair to say that it was not all smooth sailing. We learnt many lessons on the way to making HipSci a success. Since then, CGaP has made it its mission to never stop learning and evolving, to keep up with the changing needs of the Institute and shape itself into the high performing team it is today.

Lessons from car manufacturing

To learn the lessons needed, CGaP took inspiration from an unlikely source. We turned to the car manufacturing industry.

Over the last 100 years numerous management theories have arisen focusing on large scale production. One such method is “Scientific Management” or Taylorism, made famous by the Ford Motor Company in the early 1900s1. It focused on mass production by hierarchical leadership, specialisation and division of labour. One person is trained in putting on wheels, another in painting bodywork, and everyone would be coordinated by various tiers of management2,3. Though some elements of Taylorism have value it was largely discredited in the mid 1900s. In spite of this it is still applied today and it was on similar principle to this (though unknowingly) that the early CGaP systems were based.

Some of the criticisms of “Scientific Management” include its tiered approach, low skilled, rigid, inflexible workforce, high staff turnover and ergonomic challenges both mentally and physically, to name a few 2,4. Having started out life applying this method we can testify to many of these. Our challenges were exacerbated working in science, where highly skilled staff are required to tackle the daily challenges stem cells will present. Anyone who has ever worked with stem cells will know that they never quite do what you expect and become very attuned to their carer during the early stages of establishment in the lab. Working in a fixed process yet changing staff at each step was a recipe for disaster.

The shortcomings of the Henry Ford system were not lost on Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota motor company. Toyota set about defining their own methodology, later coined “The Toyota Way” and built on 14 principles centred around continuous process improvement and respect for people 5,6. This method has made Toyota the world's biggest car manufacturer, recognised as one of the most innovative and profitable companies in its field7.

The value of the Toyota Way has been jumped on by the tech industry and the theory has evolved into management methods such as Lean, Six Sigma, Scrum and Scrum’s sibling methodology, Agile8. Use of these theories is commonplace in Silicon Valley, and has gained momentum in the US with academic organisations such as the Broad Institute championing Agile through their “AgileAcademia”. Sadly they do not appear to have made the leap, on any significant scale, into the UK life science sector. A shame when you consider these methodologies result in increased efficiency and improved quality. Not to mention that at the very heart of these principles is the drive for continuous improvement, resulting in a culture open to change, able to evolve to meet the needs of its environment, which as biologists should resonate thanks to good old Darwin!

Putting theory into practice

Main Cellular Generation and Phenotyping laboratory, 2020

In 2014 we applied principle number 5 of the Toyota Way9 when we hit the big, red, stop button on the CGaP production line. We redesigned the process with a focus on efficiency and quality, removing bottlenecks and unnecessary waste steps. We re-trained all staff to take ownership of one set of stem cells, right through the process. We managed to reduce turnaround times by over two thirds and ultimately increased output 14 fold.

In 2015 we applied 5S, a tool from the Toyota and Lean arsenal, which focuses on the setup of the work environment, eliminating wastes that contribute to errors, defects and injuries5,10. 5S is so ingrained in our way of working it is second nature to most staff and drives a huge amount of pride in how we function. The principles are so simple they are applicable to any work area, and yet the value is vast. The introduction of 5S was the first step in getting staff to look at the world in a different way, questioning ‘does this add value and is what I am doing classed as a waste?’ It aided in breaking down invisible walls between teams, as it provided standardisation in how we think and operate. Staff were able to move between teams and labs having a shared understanding of how to work, allowing them to hit the ground running.

CGaP built on this principle of standardisation9. Something that has become apparent to me over the last 10 years of managing people, is that variation in standards and general lack of operational transparency can be a poison to team mentality. It results in gossip, false truths, conflict and creation of silos. A theory mirrored in the work of Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum, who (in his 2014 book) refers to the innate human response to blame each other when things go wrong, as opposed to blaming the systems or potential lack thereof, “Don’t Hate the Players, Hate the Game”12. By uniting a team under a common set of values, principles and methods you can dispel these issues. Between 2015 and 2018 we created a series of guides to aid in standardising how we function, including the CGaP welcome pack, which provides clarity for how we work and our culture from day one.

To initiate this wave of change, there was a key role CGaP management needed to play, one which applied the sociological and psychological needs of the team. In short we needed to ignite a drive for change, provide a clear vision and direction for what that change would be and rally a workforce to engage and bring these improvements about. Theory of change management is summed up beautifully by John Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change and twins with Simon Sinek’s theory of “Start with Why”13.

From cell biology to COVID processing in two weeks

Testament to the benefits of this work were reflected through 2020. The perfect example is how CGaP converted itself from a cell biology facility to a COVID processing lab in the space of two weeks. Thanks to our clear understanding of setting up and running novel projects and the culture of autonomy in the team, all the staff needed was a vision and starting plan before we divided and conquered. Not that we would have labelled it as such at the time but we applied a makeshift Scrum method, creating a central list of activities, meeting in the morning for our sprint planning (what tasks would be achieved that day) and in the evening for our sprint review (what had we achieved, what was learnt, what blockers were encountered). In just over two weeks we had built a brand new software system, designed a process, drafted and validated SOPs and purchased and set up new equipment to semi-automate the process where possible. Handbooks were written, visual tools implemented and as we scaled up staff were recruited, trained and signed off in the space of just two days.

For the staff left at home, they didn’t twiddle their thumbs, they set about publishing protocols (, writing papers, re-branding CGaP, updating all public material, starting up a charity team, raising over £2,000 and ran numerous public engagement activities. Many staff did countless amounts of training including formal training in Lean Six Sigma. Once back on campus staff started filming their work to aid in training during social distancing (videos that can also be found on and Youtube) and the team converted their yearly Advanced Course program to a virtual training course, which received excellent feedback. For two of the teams, thanks to the development work performed in 2019, they were able to output more in 2020 than they had the previous year, in spite of being in lockdown for six months. The accomplishments of CGaP were not achieved by me or the management team but by each and every member of staff. Efficiency, change and teamwork are in our teams’ DNA.

What next?

CGaP is by no means at the end of its change journey, we are constantly looking for new ideas. In 2020 we had the great fortune to run a dedicated Lean project, working with the Lean consultant Lee Walker14. This has inspired staff to forge a Lean team. They are already working with their colleagues to roll out Lean learning across CGaP. For the last year, we have been looking to formalise Matrix Management and are working across the whole division to standardise this and our project management systems. We have also been looking to Intel and Google for inspiration – both companies use Objectives with Key Results (OKRs)2.

We are not alone in our pursuit of continuous improvement, several other teams at Sanger have run projects with Lee Walker and in future articles we hope to demonstrate the value of this work.

Ultimately, organisational change needs to be driven by those at the coalface, but it must be fully endorsed by all levels of management. Management's role is to educate and empower its people, create a vision and structure, create time for change and above all create a safe space for questioning the status quo. In CGaP I would like to think we are well on our way on this journey.

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