One of our most popular subjects on The Lean Post is the use of lean in unorthodox places, such as a fish-processing boat in Alaska, a sugar-cane farm in Brazil, or even a bowling alley in Louisiana. But one gemba that we have yet to discuss on the Post is crime laboratories. These establishments are teeming with processes simple and complex, long wait times, and enormous batch sizes, among others – and as you might guess, they make excellent settings for a lean tranformation. The Post recently sat down with Heather Jamieson, Process Improvement Supervisor and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt at Sorenson Forensics, for her thoughts on the use of lean in crime labs.
What is the current state regarding the capacity of crime laboratories to handle the work they face today?
State and local crime laboratories across the country are facing increasing amounts of casework year-over-year because of pressure to use scientific evidence, often DNA in nature, to prove or disprove legal cases. Many of these laboratories are being asked to handle this growing amount of evidence that is submitted for analysis, with small (and slow-to-change) staff levels. Challenges encountered to combat this increasing demand include limited funding for additional positions and the time and resources required to bring the new hires up to proper level of training and understanding to do this type of work. As a result, some crime laboratories are unable to process all case submissions in a timely manner and a backlog of cases may exist.
So how can a lean approach tackle this problem?
We tend to see many of the traditional lean problems that show up in manufacturing at crime laboratories. Projects look mostly like projects you would expect in any industry.
Processes are littered with large batch sizes, high WIP volumes, long wait times, and high amounts of waste due to rework. Backlogs of work waiting and long turn-around-times for processing result from these inefficiencies.
It is common to see very large batches of cases moving throughout the process, which reflects an industry-wide assumption that batching is a more effective way of processing evidence. This mentality is ingrained in the industrial culture and breaking it is a big challenge.
This has a direct impact on how people approach the work. For forensic analysis, sequential scientific steps must be performed and there are large process times for those steps, many of which include instrument time.
Lab personnel process the cases in large batches for what they see as convenience or for cost purposes (time, reagents, and consumables). If there are defects or rework to be done, this batching can compound the rework required.
In any instance where there is a wrong setting for an instrument or a failure of control requirements, for instance, the entire batch may have to be redone. Batch processing also leads to feast or famine occurrences at various steps in the process due to the high volume of work moving along to the next step only when all cases have been completed.
We often see other traditional lean problems like the lack of standard work. Forensic laboratories operate under stringent accreditation and FBI- or community-mandated practices or standards. Standard operating procedures detail most, if not all, of the processes performed. But sometimes the level of detail is not adequate to result in true standard work, with virtually no variation between operators. After the lab processes are performed, multiple levels of review are required to ensure accurate conclusions from the data samples. The lack of standardization in upstream processes means that reviews become huge bottlenecks—that is where the errors from previous steps are likely to be identified. Also, there is rarely real-time problem solving, effective levels of error-proofing, or built-in quality mechanisms along the way. The end-of-process inspection may catch errors that occurred far upstream in the process and corrections may be completed days or weeks after the initial error occurred.
What type of work do you do with these laboratories?
We aim to help the laboratories use the resources they have to evaluate their current-state operation and modify their processes to increase capacity. All of this occurs while keeping a microscope on the quality of the processes adjusted. We help them shorten turnaround times so that they are better able to meet the timing requirements of the legal process, and produce scientific evidence to be used earlier in the investigations. We are helping them to add new capacity without adding new technology, resources, or people—which are often not short-term options for the operation.
Some of the ways we help them accomplish this is to support the laboratory staff in coming up with effective metrics to gauge success such as backlog numbers, turnaround times, or quality indicators. Due to the intense focus on quality in this industry, we have them track quality-related metrics as well as capacity metrics. Quality is a non-negotiable; the lab personnel are highly trained technical scientists and would not consider changes with unknown or negative impacts on the quality of the work that they do.
We train the teams to use a standard step-wise scientific approach towards process improvements, just like they use in their everyday jobs.
We use the term ‘DMIAC roadmap,’ although other commonly used lean acronyms or models would also apply. It teaches them a framework of phases, tools, and techniques to continue to repeat process evaluations leading to continuous improvement.
Talk about some of the results you see for crime laboratories you have worked with.
We have seen a reduction of the entire backlog at some laboratories, but a 30-40 percent decrease is not uncommon. In nearly every instance we have seen enough of an increase in capacity that it allows the laboratories to chip away at the backlog of cases that may have been waiting years for analysis.
What do you believe are some of the factors that help account for successful lean practice in laboratories where you have coached?
Success in adopting a better process approach has a lot to do with the overall health of the laboratory—how well people are able to collaborate and communicate, and how well leadership has set up an open forum for improvements and accountability to take place. Many times these agencies have top down management approaches and don’t consider the voices of the people doing the work every day. That’s what we challenge them to do immediately.
The projects we support rely on the folks doing the work to make improvements. We strongly recommend that at least half the team be composed by the people doing the work we hope to improve.
We use the DMAIC model, identifying problem and using data that comes from the voices of the people in the process. We count on the team members to follow through on generating and implementing solutions on behalf of the entire section that they fairly represent. They can coach, but to get lasting results and ongoing improvements there is a strong emphasis on engaging the people who are doing the work hands-on.
You were inspired by the way Food Bank For New York City’s Margarette Purvis sees lean as a vehicle for leveraging social justice. How does this apply in your case?
Every additional case that a laboratory can work enables a victim or suspect the potential to have their questions answered and their case to be heard in court. In some cases the scientific evidence helps to confirm or support an argument of the prosecution or defense. In other instances, the scientific analysis provides new information in a previously unanswered or cold case. So what we do has a direct connection to people’s lives. The value of this science continues to be seen.