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Rescue Tools For Escaping The Backlog Black Hole

Thu, 02/17/2011 - 8:41pm
Timothy D. KupferschmidMelinda Richard

Using Lean Six Sigma workflow analyses can increase laboratory efficiencies, helping to eliminate DNA backlogs.

black holeThe 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.

Last year, Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City designed a retooling plan that put as much of its technology and expertise into improving its own internal workplace practices as it puts into the systematic and careful handling of crime scene evidence.

The comprehensive evaluation resulted in an organizational and management model that not only worked but can be shared and duplicated. The Laboratory Lean/Six Sigma Practices improvement model developed shows real gains in production and efficiencies. All of this was done without terminating or hiring staff and without adding any new diagnostic equipment. The results were startling and noticed by the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory. They contracted Sorenson to put its Lean Six Sigma Practices to the test at their laboratory. The project was funded in part by the state and the remainder by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

The Louisiana State Police Crime Lab–DNA Forensic Lab Efficiency Improvement Project bore the same conclusive yet startling results:

  • Turn-around times between accepting evidence and getting analysis results into the clients’ hands were reduced by 50%.
  • Productivity doubled.
  • The number of backlogged cases was cut by half.
  • A new operations paradigm that shifts problem-solving from management to the entire workforce was created.

The results of the study became the take-home message of the 38th Annual Symposium of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors in Baltimore last September. The improvement project shows that delving into the minutia of a company in a thoughtful, open way exposes waste and choke points in production that can be eliminated.

This attempt at what is called “going lean” is instructive, but it must be hooked into a management model that not only allows those hitches to be cleared, but ensures that future problems are immediately addressed and solved. Obstacles are not relegated to management being told about a problem, they are addressed by teams of workers at all levels taking responsibility for flagging and resolving current and future issues.

The changes didn’t take place overnight but almost. Five months elapsed from the first site visit to the implementation of new processes. Additionally, the changes did not incur great expense. Some organizational expenses were incurred: label printers, cabinets and equipment relocated, and digital cameras were integrated.

Neither lab had to reinvent the wheel; they applied the template of efficiency and productivity fashioned by automobile makers from Henry Ford to Toyota as well as companies like GE and Motorola. Expert handling of forensics cases is not like making cars, but getting from beginning to end in an investigation is as basic and as problematic as putting together finely machined parts in a refined, synchronized, synergistic way.

Simply put, the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab productivity plan was really a nuts-and-bolts retooling divided into efficiency improvement categories: Define,Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. Each of these categories contains seven guiding principles:

  • Focus on the customer.
  • Identify and understand how the work gets done.
  • Manage, improve, and smooth the process flow.
  • Remove non-value added steps and waste.
  • Manage by fact and reduce variation.
  • Involve and equip the people in the process.
  • Undertake improvement activity in a systematic way.

According to both studies, the largest impediments to improving productivity are built in. Digging into the process led to the realization that efforts made to increase productivity were actually causing more delays. In Louisiana’s case, outsourcing casework generated a new backlog in case review. New construction to give the DNA unit more space was literally adding to the miles between specimen arrival and return within the lab itself. A single blood vial was hand carried a total 8,808 feet. At about one second spent for every two feet walked (one step), the evidence spent 73.4 minutes in transit traveling a total of 1.68 miles. Compound that by the number of samples being analyzed at one given time, and delays can reach levels equal to the distance and time of a marathon. Merely relocating tasks reduced the transportation path and reduced the time needed to complete tasks.

The Lean Six Sigma tracking methods also led to immediate improvements. By specifically tracking both the course and quality hindrances in a deliberate, systemic way, turnaround-time was reduced to 53 days by mid-September 2010, from 217 days in May 2008. Quality was never compromised, but rather was a focus in the discussions about processes.

Distilling productivity practices to this level isn’t just a nice idea, it’s required. Systematically tracking how things get done, or too often, don’t get done, might sound like an exercise in tedium. However, if the laboratory employees are no longer just keeping the workload at bay, then they become fully invested participants in developing remedies.

Fear of change runs deep in both laboratories and in the humans who run them, and Lean Six Sigma Practices are not a silver bullet or a one-size-fits-all solution. Staff members were afraid that quality would be compromised, their daily routines would mimic those at a prison camp, and that their ability to demonstrate their intellectual expertise would be thwarted. The same way the world community wondered how the miners would survive their ordeal, lab management treaded cautiously through great change that was to occur within a few months. The results were far from what was feared. The real-time work product review has led to fewer case corrections during report writing. The increased accountability of each team member has increased team morale. The very scheduled routine has left little room for personal variation and has increased the consistency in the way analysis is conducted in every case.

Just as a simple feeding tube maintained the lives of 33 miners for more than two months, simple tools can yield remarkable results. The Lean Six Sigma project required some initial investment, but the positive results are being felt throughout the entire organizations where the projects were conducted. Just as the miners rescued from their black hole were forever changed by their experience, once an organization develops a "lean" approach to its work, the new culture is not easily abandoned. While the lab results that were obtained are great for the deadline-strapped laboratory workers and supervisors, its real impact is felt outside the lab where real-time leads are offered, more crimes are solved, more criminals are taken off the streets, and the public is measurably safer.

Timothy Kupferschmid has more than 20 years of forensic DNA testing experience. Mr Kupferschmid holds a master's degree in forensic science (MFS) from the George Washington University and an AB degree from Bowdoin College in biology and environmental studies. Mr Kupferschmid has worked as a senior DNA analyst at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), served as the Laboratory Director of the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory and was the Forensic Technical Director at Myriad Genetic Laboratories, Inc.Most recently, Mr. Kupferschmid was elected to the Board of Directors of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD).

Melinda Richard, MT(ASCP) is a Crime Lab Manager with the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory.With 25 years of laboratory experience, Mendy has management experience in clinical research, clinical hospital, pathology, and forensic laboratories. As a compliance officer and consultant, she has worked with laboratories throughout Louisiana, ensuring quality. Now as the LSPCL Project Leader for the NIJ Efficiency Improvement grant project, her efforts are focused on the efficiency of lab operations. LSPCL has begun to implement the same Lean Six Sigma principles in other departments with plans to expand the concepts to other processes and departments with whom the Crime Lab interfaces.

The complete presentation from the 38th Annual ASCLD Symposium and the poster presentation from the 21st Annual International Symposium on Human Identification as well as background information and the history of the Louisiana State Crime Lab can be viewed at www.sorensonforensics.com.

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