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Forensics Lab Goes Lean to Jump Start Productivity

In New York, the Monroe County Crime Lab’s Forensic Biology section has streamlined its workflow and increased efficiency by using the Lean Six Sigma management philosophy.

by / February 21, 2013

Forensic biologists at the Monroe County Crime Laboratory in Rochester, N.Y., have increased the number of final reports they’ve issued by 200 percent, thanks in part to a lean management system.

The Forensic Biology section of the crime lab adopted Lean Six Sigma in September 2012 to help speed up the review of case files, which include DNA profiles. The philosophy — which focuses on strategies to improve workflow with an emphasis on removing waste and defects — was a success, as team members saw the number of reports they filed on those cases jump from approximately 25 per month to more than 100.

According to Jennifer Hill, a forensic biologist with the Monroe County lab, Sorenson Forensics was brought aboard in 2010 to teach the lab staff Lean Six Sigma. At that time, the goal was to use the principles to better allocate people and resources.

With those aspects now aligned, Sorenson was brought in again last year to help lab staff members get more competent in the Six Sigma principles and apply them to improve efficiency. To date, Monroe County has spent $56,890 on the contract with Sorenson, a private forensics lab that works collaboratively with public agencies.

Hill explained that she and her colleagues were able to successfully integrate the improved personnel and resource scheduling into the delivery process of DNA profiles. In the past, case files could sit open for weeks at a time, depending on when staff members had time to work on them. Now there is a six-day window to finish each case.

One way Hill and others in the lab applied the Lean principles they’ve learned is the development of a checkbox system. In the past, each case file would have handwritten notes describing evidence. All those descriptions had similar wording, but each person would go about the task differently.

That information was used to develop a worksheet that requires each employee to pick an answer, making the system more uniform, decisive and efficient.

“One of the things we were really struggling with was standard work — making sure everybody was covering the same amount of material in every case file,” Hill said. “The worksheet has really helped us focus on standard work, because you have to check ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or have to pick an option, you have to address it.”

Hill added that when a new case file comes in, supervisors will now assign that to someone whose first day in the six-day cycle is coming up. This way the work doesn’t lie untouched for a week or two and every member of the team is expected to complete tasks in an equal amount of time.

Accountability Is Key

Six Sigma was developed by Motorola in 1986 as a way to help improve products and reduce errors in the manufacturing process. Lean Six Sigma combines that strategy with a focus on the elimination of wasteful tasks that slow down production.

Lean Six Sigma uses a series of belt rankings to indicate competency in its workflow strategies, similar to karate. A yellow belt indicates a basic understanding of six sigma principles. A person holding a “green belt” is considered at the practitioner level — someone on a project team that uses Six Sigma. Hill and four other members of the Monroe County Crime Lab are at this level.

A project leader holds the rank of “black belt,” someone who heads up multiple projects and serves as a source of information for green belts. The highest level is a “Master Black Belt.” This individual wouldn’t lead projects, but would coach black belts. The Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma principles are taught by a variety of people and vendors.

Tim Kupferschmid, executive director of Sorenson Forensics, said his company experienced great success with Lean Six Sigma internally and began adapting it for its forensic procedures in 2008. Kupferschmid said the principles really focus on the importance of accountability.

Daily “stand-up” meetings are a part of the system. Employees use these gatherings to update each other and supervisors about what they’ve accomplished in the past day and any problems that were encountered. At the end of the meeting, employees share individual goals for what will be completed before the next meeting.

“You’re accountable to your teammates more than you’re accountable to your supervisor,” Kupferschmid said. “So people are much more enthusiastic to be accountable to their team members so they don’t let their team members down.”

Hill agreed and said that if there is a case sitting in a review process for an extra day or two past what it should be, it gets brought up in a meeting to determine what’s going on.

“It forces us to talk about a lot of the steps in the process and address issues as they come, instead of waiting for them to be resolved,” she added.

Looking Ahead

Based on its success with Lean Six Sigma, the Forensic Biology section of the lab has set some loftier goals for the remainder of 2013. Hill said that by June, the hope is to achieve a 300 percent increase in the number of finished case files and get to a 400 percent increase by the end of the year over the amount they were doing prior to implementing Lean Six Sigma.

Hill hopes the increased efficiency will allow her and the team to completely wipe out their backlog of cases, letting them bring new types of technology into the lab and get trained on it. That hasn’t been possible with their current workload.

Laboratory Administrator John Clark added that he was impressed by Lean Six Sigma’s impact on Forensic Biology and is considering “Black Belt” training for Hill and others so they could potentially train other employees in the Firearms and Drug Chemistry sections of the lab.

Photo from Shutterstock

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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