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Shovel Away Your DNA Backlog with Lean Six Sigma Tools

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Timothy D. Kupferschmid1, Melinda Richard2, Layne Barnum2, Adam Becnel2, Jeremy Dubois2, Alyson Saadi2, Erica Sparacino2 and Joanie B. Wilson2

1Sorenson Forensics, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
2Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA

Publication Date: 2011

SALT LAKE CITY—Just before sunrise on December 29, 2010, a nationwide system of cold fronts had officially put millions of Americans out of their comfort zones. Multiple snowstorms were lambasting broad regions on both sides of the Continental Divide, stranding tens of thousands of travelers somewhere between home and their hope of enjoying the short human hibernation between Christmas and New Year's.

The white and drifted snow took on an air of familiarity, not because most were shoveling it for the third time in 24 hours, but because the scene looked like a modern forensic crime lab: A pile of backlogged cases growing deeper as we make room for a bigger pile of new ones.

Perhaps it was the dramatic nature of the storms occurring at year's end when people are assessing the past year and resolving to break bad habits, but the growing snowbanks flanking driveways and sidewalks seemed to frame another “perfect storm” hitting crime labs across the country: Demand has never been higher, the budgets of state agencies that underwrite U.S. public crime labs have never been tighter, and neither spring nor the next new technologically advanced instrument holds the promise of a “thaw” in the workload.

“The Laboratory Lean Six Sigma Practices improvement model shows real gains in production and efficiencies, without terminating or hiring staff and without adding any new diagnostic equipment.”

“Digging out” in our world will require resolutions in each forensic laboratory to actively and seriously assess its methods. Instead of just trying harder, each administrator and scientist must open the choke points in forensic case processing.

Just as snowstorms reveal the number and scale of gaps in cities' snow-removal operations, the battering from record demand on many crime labs worldwide exposes weaknesses in evidence processing.

The blessing of increasing success of DNA technologies has led to a curse of record increases in the number of DNA cases submitted to crime labs. At the same time, state budgets are forcing government departments 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.

While the backlog of forensic DNA cases can hamper a crime lab much as snow falling 5 inches (12.7 cm) per hour can hamper holiday travel plans, that is not the key element that distinguishes a vibrant, functioning DNA unit in the new decade from one that is desperately trying to stay alive. Lean Six Sigma tools, applied in a programmatic way, can yield remarkable results that are both cost-effective and morale-building.

DNA testing enjoys unprecedented popularity as a scientific endeavor for good, both by real law enforcement agencies and by no less than five prime-time television shows. Finding the truth by diving deep into the minutia left behind by criminal activity, natural disasters or missing persons makes a great story on television, but perhaps it has a down side—obscuring operational weaknesses and bottlenecks.

On TV, cases running both hot and cold can be sewn up in 53 minutes. In the real world, turnaround time (the time from receiving evidence to having a scientific report in the client's hands to continue the legal process) is 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 percent—are put on the back burner, i.e., backlogged. Far too often, the scientists feel victimized by the process and feel the stress more while trying harder.

Meanwhile, specimens follow a course of analysis that when tracked and mapped on a chart looks as convoluted as a bowl of cooked spaghetti. Readers should 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 thing and accepts that 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 technology and expertise into improving its own internal workplace practices as it put 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 Sorenson Forensics 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 awarded a consulting contract to Sorenson Forensics to put its Lean Six Sigma Practices to the test at their laboratory. The project was funded by the state and 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:

  • Turnaround times between accepting evidence and getting analysis results into clients' hands were reduced by 50 percent.
  • Productivity doubled.
  • The number of backlogged cases were cut in half.
  • A new operations paradigm was created to shift problem-solving from management's concerns to everybody's job.

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 this past September. The improvement project shows that delving into the minutia of a laboratory in a thoughtful, open way exposes waste and choke points in production that can be eliminated.

This attempt at "going lean" is instructive, but it must be hooked into a management model that not only allows hitches to be cleared but ensures that future problems are immediately addressed and solved. Obstacles are not just reported and relegated to management; they are addressed by workers at all levels taking responsibility to flag and resolve current and future issues.

The changes didn't take place overnight—but almost. Five months elapsed from the first site visit to the new process being implemented. Additionally, the changes did not incur great expense. Some organizational expenses were incurred: label printers, cabinets and equipment were 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 nonvalue-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 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. A single blood vial was hand-carried a total of 8,808 feet (2,685 meters). 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 (2.7 kilometers). Compound that by the number of samples being analyzed at one time, and delays can equal the distance and time of a marathon. Merely relocating tasks reduced the transportation path and the time needed to complete tasks.

The Lean Six Sigma tracking methods led to immediate improvements. By tracking both the course and quality hindrances in a deliberate, systematic way, we reduced turnaround time to 53 days by mid-September 2010 from the 217 days in May 2008.

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

Modern crime lab personnel are as disinclined to welcome change as anybody. Lean Six Sigma Practices are not a silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. Staff members were afraid that quality would be compromised, their daily routines would mimic a prison camp and their ability to demonstrate their intellectual expertise would be thwarted.

As the storms this winter are resolved by reasoned, cautious treading, the fear of what can go awry can be resolved with a careful process. The Louisiana unit, and others now re-evaluating their lab's habits, are finding that time spent making their processes “lean” is more than offset by gains. 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 consistency of analysis in every case.

Just as a simple shovel helps us get back to normal after an early winter storm, simple tools can yield remarkable results in the lab. The Lean Six Sigma project required initial investment, but the positive results are being felt throughout entire organizations where the projects were conducted. Once an organization develops a “lean” approach to their work, the new culture is not easily abandoned. While the results are great for the deadline-strapped laboratory workers and supervisors, the 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.


The authors would like to acknowledge the entire Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory Forensic DNA Unit. The unit still works everyday to eliminate our backlog, improve the process and efficiency, increase communication and build a culture whereteamwork is a centerpiece.

The complete presentation from the 38th Annual ASCLD Symposium and the poster presentation from the 21st International Symposium on Human Identification can be viewed at: www.sorensonforensics.com

Background information as well as the history of the Louisiana State Crime Lab also is available.

How to Cite This Article

Kupferschmid, T.D. et al. Shovel Away Your DNA Backlog with Lean Six Sigma Tools. [Internet] 2011. [cited: year, month, date]. Available from: http://www.promega.com/resources/profiles-in-dna/2011/shovel-away-your-dna-backlog-with-lean-six-sigma-tools/

Kupferschmid, T.D. et al. Shovel Away Your DNA Backlog with Lean Six Sigma Tools. Promega Corporation Web site. http://www.promega.com/resources/profiles-in-dna/2011/shovel-away-your-dna-backlog-with-lean-six-sigma-tools/ Updated 2011. Accessed Month Day, Year.

Contribution of an article to Profiles in DNA does not constitute an endorsement of Promega products.

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