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Solving The Backlog problem in Crime Labs
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Solving The Backlog problem in Crime Labs

by Timothy D. Kupferschmid, MBA, MFS

“More with less, more or less” has been an unwritten tenet at every forensic crime lab for years. There has been a shared view that increasing quantity always reduces quality and that salvation lies in the next new procedure, or the next shiny piece of equipment. That hope in the era of shrinking bottom lines for government and quasi-governmental agencies is about as useful to a crime lab's efficiency as a shrug from an eyewitness is to solving a robbery.  In other words, the letters CSI might appear in the credits of about every other television show, but going from ghoulish to glamorous doesn't do a thing for the day-to-day effort of forensics in the real world.

 

The field of forensics has become a cultural icon of good science doing the public's good. That is the result, at least in part, to the remarkable advances in DNA testing and high-tech diagnostics that have afforded labs the unprecedented capacity to delve deeper into the minutiae of crime scene evidence.

 

Forensics, as envisioned by the pioneering Joseph Bell, whose belief that the smallest detail could be a revelation not only inspired Arthur Conan Doyle but enhances the workaday skills of lawyers, forensic scientists, law enforcement officials, information technology security staff, the courts and law students.

 

The job is simple. Any action of an individual, and obviously the violent action constituting a crime, cannot occur without leaving a trace. That theory has become the standard practice of a profession doing what is - no brag, just fact - the most technologically sophisticated, most tedious and meticulous work in this still adolescent Information Age.

 

England's network of six crime labs based in Birmingham and run by the Home Office is the world's third-largest repository of DNA samples - around four million - and the envy of other countries, both in its ability to pull suspects and its output of evidence samples, that according to the Home Office, is running somewhere close to 300 per week. All major technical innovations, like the special DNA sprinkler systems in shopping areas that can douse criminals during their getaway with a fine mist of paint that is nearly impossible to remove and nearly incontrovertible in court increase the workload. The so-called "labs on a chip" technology that makes DNA testing mobile, using hand-held devices that will one day soon allow physicians, crime scene investigators, and eventually the general public to conduct their own DNA tests almost anywhere will not bring immediate efficiencies. Those efficiencies will remain pie-in-the-sky. Right now, labs are under the gun to do more, better, and faster. Despite its unparalleled capacity to determine "whodunnit" or to decipher the traces of a missing person is becoming more complicated every day.

 

The new wave of expertise in the profession lies in managing our own internal operations. It's not as if lab managers don't have all clues, finding that paths to improvement too often turn into dead ends. In the meantime, an extraordinarily number of cases--as high as 60 to 70 percent in many U.S. labs--are put on the back burner, i.e., backlogged. That, in effect, is putting them out of sight, and, too often, out of mind.

 

On the TV screen, cases running hot and cold are sewn up in 53 minutes. In the real world, turn-around times from receiving evidence to getting analysis back in the hands of the officer to continue a legal procedure can take days, weeks, and sometimes months, not minutes as depicted on TV. Meanwhile, the specimens will have followed a course of analysis that when tracked individually and mapped on a chart looks like a bowl of cooked spaghetti. Real reductions in backlogs and measurable improvements in quality are not only possible, but virtually guaranteed, if a lab takes some trouble to scrutinise the way that things actually get done.  Getting things done can often get in the way of doing things right.

 

Last year, Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City, Utah, designed a retooling plan. We discovered that an increasing number of requests weren't being put through the system, but were being put on hold. The company decided it would put as much of its technology and expertise into the systematic and careful handling of crime scene evidence and improving its own internal workplace practices. The comprehensive evaluation resulted in an organisational and management model that not only worked but could be shared.

 

The Laboratory Lean/Six Sigma Practices improvement model showed real gains in production and efficiencies - all done without letting go or hiring more staff or with any new diagnostic equipment. The results were startling and were noticed by the U.S. Department of Justice which gave Sorenson a grant to put its Lean Six Sigma Practices to the test at the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory.

 

The DNA Forensic Lab Efficiency Improvement Project delivered the same conclusive yet startling results: --Turn-around times between accepting evidence to getting analysis results into the clients' hands were reduced by 50 percent -- Productivity doubled -- Backlog cases were cut by half -- A new operations paradigm that shifts problem-solving from management's concern to everybody's job.

 

The results of the study, which became the take-home message of the 38th annual symposium of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors in Baltimore this past September, in general show that delving into the minutiae of a company in a thoughtful, open way exposes efforts that get wasted and what points in production are choke points. This attempt at what is called "going lean" is instructive, but it must be hooked into a management model that allow those hitches to be cleared while ensuring that future ones are immediately addressed and solved - not by management being told about a problem but by teams of workers at all levels taking responsibility to flag, address and peg future ones.

 

The changes didn't take place overnight, but in five months between April and mid-September we went from first site visit to plans implemented. 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 isn't like making cars, but getting from here to there in an investigation is as basic and as problematic as putting together finely machined parts in a refined, synchronised, synergistic way. The Louisiana lab productivity plan was really a nuts-and-bolts retooling divided into efficiency improvement categories: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control. Within those categories are 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.

 

Both studies found that the biggest impediments to improving productivity were inbuilt. Many efforts to address them had actually produced the very models of inefficiency that labs were trying too hard to root out. That crimp in the workflow became evident in Louisiana just a few weeks into the study. Nearly two-thirds of the lab's 900 backlogged cases had been outsourced to vendor laboratories. With no definite time line or review plan of those pieces of evidence, the lab had actually built-in delays by turning outside to help improve productivity. The Louisiana lab was also 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 (2.70 kilometres). Compound that by the number of samples being analysed at one given time and delays can reach levels equal to the distance and time of a marathon.

 

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 the 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. But if in the process, the stakeholders from managers to staff technicians are no longer just keeping the workload at bay, they become fully invested participants in developing remedies.

 

Fear of change naturally runs deep in any laboratory and in the humans who run them, and Lean Six Sigma Practices is not a silver bullet or a one-size-fits-all solution.  Staff members were afraid that quality would be compromised, that their daily routine would mimic a factory process, and that their ability to demonstrate intellectual ability would be thwarted. The lab management remained cautious perhaps pessimistic about the great changes. But the results were far from what had been feared. The real-time work product review led to fewer case corrections during report writing. The increased accountability of each team member increased team morale. The strictly scheduled routine left little room for personal variation and increased the consistency and quality of analysis conducted in every case.

 

The approach can reduce lab processing times by half; significantly reduce backlog by increasing output while simultaneously reducing errors. That's great for the deadline-strapped laboratory workers and supervisors. But, the real good comes from what it means outside the lab: more crimes are solved, more criminals are taken off the streets, and the public is measurably safer.

 



 

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