Using Lean Six Sigma workflow analyses can increase laboratory efficiencies, helping to eliminate DNA backlogs.
The recent rescue of the trapped coal miners in Chile shows how simple tools, like a tube used to deliver food, were the difference between life and death. This essential rescue tool led to a very happy ending. While the backlog of forensic DNA cases is not the same type of “black hole,” it does represent a key element that defines the difference between a vibrant, functioning DNA unit and one that is desperately trying to stay ahead. Lean Six Sigma tools, applied in a programmatic way, can yield remarkable results that are both cost-effective and morale building.
The increasing success of DNA technologies has led to an increase in the number of DNA case submissions to crime labs nationally, while state government forensic program budgets are shrinking. Crime labs have no choice but to quickly figure out how to do more with less. The judicial system and the communities we serve demand that we work better, faster, and more cost-effectively—in a word, more efficiently.
DNA testing enjoys unprecedented popularity as a scientific endeavor for good, both by real law enforcement agencies and by no fewer than five prime-time television shows. Because finding the truth by going deep into the minutia left behind by criminal activity, natural disasters, or missing persons makes a great story on television, it has an ironic real-life down side. The remarkable results have led to increased demand of this detailed work, which can create obstacles of system capacity and proper management of its own internal operations.
A main focus in the industry is to eliminate the backlog of and rescue the pending cases from the apparent black hole that they seem to have been pulled into. On TV, cases running both hot and cold can get sewn up in 53 minutes. In the real world, turn-around times (the time it takes from receiving evidence to having a scientific report back in the hands of the client to continue the legal process) takes days, weeks, and sometimes months, not minutes as depicted so glamorously.
Lab managers have all kinds of clues about what’s wrong with the way their labs work, but paths to improvement often turn into cul-de-sacs, with the best intentions paving the way back to the start. In the meantime, an extraordinarily large number of cases, as high as 60 to 70%, are put on the back burner, i.e. backlogged.
Turn-around times are long enough for the public and lawmakers to become critical of crime labs, asking what is needed to solve the problem. Some even claim that the lag times amount to a crime in and of itself, or at least are tantamount to adding insult to the injured victims in a prolonged case. Too often, the response by labs, who feel helpless to change the process themselves, is to stress how hard they’re trying to keep up with demand. They don’t deny the public relation challenges; they just don’t feel they have the tools to solve the problem. The difference between acceptable and remarkable shrinks with increased equipment and staffing, but with a technology that changes rapidly, it is not enough to reach excellence in service for the long term.
Meanwhile, specimens will follow a course of analysis that when tracked individually and mapped on a chart looks as convoluted as a bowl of cooked spaghetti. Readers should also know that real reductions in backlogs and measurable improvements in quality are not only possible but virtually guaranteed, if a lab is willing to do the difficult and accepts that taking the time to scrutinize the way things are done may be a shorter path to success. Getting things done can often get in the way of doing things right.