Workflow – The Life of a Document After Review

This is Part 5 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 4.

flintstonesAn image I use to describe eFiling without automated workflow is Fred Flintstone’s car: it looks automated; but somehow the driver is still doing all the work. From the filer’s perspective, once a document is filed, electronically or otherwise, the “processing” fun is over. But from the court’s perspective, receipt and acceptance of the document initiates an interconnected flow of activities, including identification, recording, and routing it across tasks, processes, and procedures through its lifecycle. This flow of activities is generally known as “workflow”.

Each workflow step has three basic parts. First, what it is. Second, decide what to do with it. Third, transport it to where the next step must be performed. With electronic documents, the third step obviously gets a lot easier, since the document need not be physically transported. But what about the first and second steps?

Consider for a moment the distinction between “Discretionary” and “Ministerial” decision-making. Discretionary decisions are those where the decision maker weighs the information and, based on his or her knowledge, experience, and authority choses which outcome or action would be most appropriate. Ministerial decisions, on the other hand, are those where the outcome is to be decided based on a set of rules known to the decision maker. A judge’s bail decision is discretionary. A traffic court referee’s determination of a fine amount, being based on a formula, is ministerial.

Discretionary decisions made by qualified people provide the “value added” in knowledge-based service industries like courts. In other words, that’s what the public is willing to pay for: well reasoned decisions.

When it comes to ministerial “decisions”, like where to send a document for the next step in a business process, while the rules may be complicated, following them does not require judgment; only knowledge of the rules.

Paradoxically, the more complicated the rules are, generally the more qualified is the person who must make the “decision”, both because that person is more likely to know the rules and because that person may be deemed more trustworthy to correctly follow them.

The result is that courts generally expend an enormous amount of their most valuable human resources on ministerial tasks that could be performed by anyone sufficiently versed in the rules. Meanwhile, those resources are considerably less available to provide the much higher value-added activities for which they are qualified. Indeed, in most courts, more time and effort goes into figuring out what to do with documents than is spent actually working with them.

Implementing eFiling, with or without also implementing automated workflow, certainly confers major benefits on the filers. From the court’s perspective, though, all other benefits pale before the benefits from implementing automated workflow.  A few years ago I wrote in a white paper:

“Where potential workflow improvements stand out, they tend to stand out impressively. Filing incoming mail, for instance, is a critical task requiring a high level of business knowledge. The individual performing this task must know how to “route” each incoming item (and often several items in one submission must be dis-aggregated and routed to separate locations), sort them into piles, then assure they are accurately fed into whatever distribution process is used to physically move them. In a system with properly implemented workflow, the document (usually self-identifying), once entered into the ECM system, will be automatically routed to the correct place.

“The first key savings is the time of the knowledgeable staff who no longer have to individually assess and route each document. Next is Elapsed Time savings: delivery can go from days or weeks to minutes. Then there is the savings not only of the reduction of lost and misrouted documents to near zero, but the elimination of the need for redundancies and safeguards that are commonly in place to deal with those errors when they inevitably happen in the paper document world.”

Short-Term Payback and Long Term Gain from Transitioning to a Paper-On-Demand Court, Jeffrey N. Barlow, 2011.

Yes; eFiling can be implemented without automating workflow. But it makes no sense.

Coming up next: Blog 6 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Data Centric eFiling

 

One thought on “Workflow – The Life of a Document After Review

  1. Jeff does a great job of getting the thought process going in the right direction in the use of cartoon analogies: appearances of automation (Fred Flintstone’s car) but in reality a court handling process that must be built into the workflow.

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