To Wade In Or Jump?

“Big Bang” Or “Staged” Change and the “Open” Versus “Closed” Technology Ecosystem

Everyone who has ever approached a cool lake, stream, surf, or pool knows the conundrum: Enter the water slowly to get acclimated; or take the plunge and endure the shock. Is there a “correct” answer? Maybe; but the truth is, there are disadvantages to each.

123_Digital-Ecosystem

Courts face the same dilemma when it comes to embarking on change, which often includes the prospect of immersion in some new technology. As the desired end-result is to be “in the water” no matter the technique used to get wet, the decision may be reduced to a basic tactical question, “What’s the best way to get the new technology in place?”.

I confess that I may have taken that position on occasion. Yet a strong argument can be made that the decision on how to get there is more strategic than tactical. Consider this statement from a recent Forbes article:

Smart organizations learn quickly enough that if they place efficiency above a smooth organizational transformation, they may find their automation efforts fail to improve their companies’ performance.

My take on this observation is that in this era of constant disruption, the ability of an organization to handle change (including introduction of new technology) constitutes a strategic imperative; not just a tactical choice.


Download a white paper on the business case for a paper-on-demand court.

Given that many courts have a finite capacity to absorb change without breaking some really important things, the “Big Bang” approach may have the dual unfortunate consequences of failing to achieve the objective and unintentionally degrading (or missing an opportunity to improve) the court’s capacity to constructively embrace change.

Moreover, in some ways, these considerations permeate the current discussions in court technology circles regarding the relative advantages of “Open” versus “Closed” technology ecosystems.

At e-Courts 2016, in the session Good Public Policy for Innovation: Open vs. Closed Eco-System , California Court of Appeals Justice Terry Bruniers, Orange County Superior Court CEO Alan Carlson, and Santa Clara County Superior Court CIA  Robert Oyung discussed the plusses and minuses of each approach.

The “traditional”, which is to say, legacy, approach using a “Closed” ecosystem was, to a great degree, forced upon courts in the early days of court case and records management technology. Through the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s, there was little in the way of standards, the consequence of which was that a system developed for one court could rarely be ported to other courts. The overall large court and state court market was, in a business sense, not large enough to attract big players to develop systems that could be built once and resold (usually after expensive rewriting and customization) many times.

The panelists identified a number of advantages of the “Closed” model, based on their experiences: Ease of management, level of control, easier (and more local) governance, and the ability to “have it my way”. And, since many if not most larger courts and systems “grew up” with the “Closed” model, they are at least culturally used to it.

Nevertheless, the panel unanimously concluded that, on the whole, the “Open” ecosystem model today provides considerably greater advantages. Today’s technical landscape, in contrast to the relatively monolithic and sparsely populated landscape of decades past, provides courts with much greater choice and flexibility across CMS, DMS, e-filing, workflow, judicial workbench, cross-system integration, etc.

Panelists felt that “Open” ecosystems offer increased nimbleness and agility to deal with the rapidly changing environment in which courts must operate and plan today. They spoke of the increased power through availability of “Best of Breed” solutions.

And, in line with the strategic nature of the organization’s ability to adapt to and embrace change, they spoke of the advantages offered by partnering with vendors. One observation was that vendors in many ways are more public-facing, and may know and understand the court’s customers in ways that the court itself does not.

Whatever the choice – staged versus “Big Bang”; “Closed” ecosystem versus “Open” ecosystem – courts should base their decisions on more than what, in the moment, feels like the best tactical reason. The changes involve the body, heart, and soul of the court – so the decisions should be strategically aligned with the court’s longer term considerations.

Hacking Outside the Box

I think it was Arnold Palmer who remarked that beginners often find golf easy because they haven’t had time to learn how hard it is. That’s essentially the sentiment that drives the “Hackathon” mentality. At e-Courts 2016 last month, the Court Hackathon sessions were among the most interesting and the most eye-opening.

121_hacking

I didn’t know, going in, what a “Hackathon” is. I assumed it was a bunch of real-life Big Bang Theory young techies trying to break court enterprise systems.

It turns out I was half right. It does involve a bunch of BBT young techies. However, rather than breaking things, they are building them. Hackathoners enter a convention hall-size room filled with tables, chairs, computers, and various forms of highly caffeinated beverages and high caloric-content junk food. They are tasked with conceiving, designing, and creating a working, useful application. They have something like thirty-six hours in which to do it. They form teams and have at it. At the end, they show what they’ve built.

The really exciting part is that these folks, being not only young, but also largely unencumbered by any idea of the internal operations of the justice system in general or the courts in particular, are literally unaware that certain things JUST CAN’T BE DONE.

At one session, the Grand Prize winners presented their winning solution (their presentation, along with the others from the conference, is available online).

In many ways, the actual solution took a back seat to the attitude, approach, and world view of the “Hackathoners”. These young people view courts and the justice system from the perspective of people who have never, since the time they were slapped with GPS bracelets in the hospital before they were all the way born, known a world without the Internet, Google, Amazon, smartphones, and so on. When they have a question, they expect to be able to ask in normal language and to instantly get a straightforward, relevant response.

When describing how the team determined what “problem” to solve, they told a very non-flattering (to the justice agency) story of trying to report a theft. The online interface consisted of a half-dozen or more text-packed screens requesting myriad information, almost none of which seemed (to the victim) to be even slightly relevant to his attempt to report the crime. (The victim’s date of birth? His employer? Really?)

Now, from an internal agency standpoint, the question would be, “Well, what’s wrong with that? We’re on the cutting edge – we’re actually using Form-Driven E-Filing. Not only that, the citizen (to whom we have outsourced our data entry) can access it online. You mean you’re not thanking us for this?

The team decided to attempt to develop a more friendly experience for the user. They selected a court application: responding to an eviction (FED) notice. To see how it works, watch the presentation, which includes a demo.

Here’s what I think is particularly important: The key to the solution is what is known as Natural Language Processing (NLP). You know it as Siri, Cortina, Alexa, Echo, and so on. As the team pointed out, only now is the processing power becoming available to make NLP a part of practical solutions.

So here’s the punch line insofar as it relates to ECM and E-Filing. Remember the Six Building Blocks of ECM?  (Feel free to go back and review… ) Well, Number One is Capture. And Capture is starting to move to interactive, NPL interfaces: the next evolution beyond form-driven data capture.

The data so captured from natural conversations will feed into the Workflow engine. And the results will in turn be consumed by, among other things, the NLP itself as it hones its ability to effectively interact with users, making sense of what it hears and giving appropriate and meaningful responses.

Really, really exciting stuff. At least to a geek like me. The Hackathoners, not knowing any better, gave us a glimpse of where we’re all headed. Seemed to them to be the right thing to do.

 

Black Belt: Learning to Learn

113_black-beltThe term “Martial Arts” may seem strange to those who have never pursued them. To those who have, however, the term makes perfect sense. Karate, judo, tai-chi, kung-fu, and myriad others, are indeed arts, requiring years of dedicated study and practice to master.

That’s not to say that there is no benefit at the front end. Beginners can pick up the rudiments of self-defense in a relatively short order. Indeed, a lot of folks look no further, in the same way that tourists can pick up enough of a foreign language to get by on a vacation, although they cannot be said to “speak the language”. And, there are a lot of benefits that accrue at the outset: improved fitness, enhanced self-awareness, increased self-confidence, and so on.

Most of those reasons are why people take up a martial art in the first place. When they start, even achieving Green Belt status seems almost impossibly remote. Mastery requires internalizing a complex and non-intuitive set of reflexes that permeate every action and every thought. And there’s just no way to do that without investing a lot of time and effort. Thus, to novices (White Belts), the Green Belts appear to be outstanding, the Brown Belts appear to be perfect practitioners; and the Black Belts are practically gods.

So, here’s a bit of a surprise: A First Degree Black Belt, achieved after years of effort, does not mean that the person has learned all are there is to know. Yes, he or she has become highly proficient, both in the Martial Art and in life in most aspects of life in general. But achievement of First Degree Black Belt status means, within the Martial Arts community, that the recipient is finally qualified and ready to begin learning.

In that regard, the recent announcement that Macomb County, Michigan Circuit Court now processes more documents through its E-Filing System than are received in paper format caused me to reflect that Macomb County and others who have been diligently working on ECM for years are approaching new thresholds. Yes, the ECM systems long ago began providing significant savings, efficiencies, and improved customer service, much as a White Belt realizes great benefits from the first several years of training. But as the courts leave the old paradigm behind – shedding its old skin, as it were – after significant time, effort, and learning, they are positioned to begin leveraging ECM by fully shifting to information management paradigms unencumbered by the limitations of the old world. Things like automatic redaction, fully automated document lifecycle control, rich and detailed metrics of all kinds, real-time data aggregation, and much, much more will be just the beginning.

In fact, no one knows the nature and extent of the capabilities that will be emerging, because unlike martial arts, there are not generations of high-level Black Belts who have been here before. The currently emerging ECM-cognizant courts are the first generation.

The next several years will be interesting and fraught with possibility. Organization, including courts, have to “learn to learn”, just as people do. Many of those who embarked on the ECM journey years ago are, after years of effort and experience, becoming comfortable with Change Management at levels never before possible or even contemplated. For adults set in their ways (and courts, as we know, have been very set in their ways), learning a second language is usually pretty challenging. But learning a new language makes learning yet another language much, much easier. Likewise, fully internalizing a new technology paradigm such as ECM makes identification of and transition to even better operations significantly smoother and less traumatic.

Macomb County Circuit Court and its peers have come a long ways. More exciting, they are in much better position to move forward with each passing step. Tipping to a majority of e-filed documents is a big one. Moving up to the darker-colored belt. Congratulations; I look forward to watching as the journey continues.

 

Electronic Filing: Law Firm Considerations

This is Part 9 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 8 here.

 Ten to fifteen years ago, some of the strongest advocacy for the rather radical idea of eFiling came from large law firms. While smaller firms had some serious doubts as to “what was in it for them”, larger firms had already learned (sometimes against their initial will) some major lessons from dealing with the then-nascent, mandatory, federal eFiling system. The biggest of these lessons may be loosely summarized as “eFiling is easier, cheaper, and more reliable than paper filing.”

Today, my technophobic wife, a long-time legal secretary, becomes frustrated and annoyed when she has to file a matter with a court that has yet to adopt eFiling. So much for the “It’s too complicated, too cumbersome, and too difficult” rants that I used to endure at the inception of eFiling.

69_mrs wormerRemoving the logistics of physically getting documents to court constitutes, in of itself, sufficient reason for law firms to appreciate eFiling. Firms are able to file from anywhere, at any time, immediately, and without sending anyone to the court or waiting for land mail to (hopefully) make its way to the destination. Even when “convenience fees” help fund the system, any fair accounting will rapidly conclude that the firm savings in staff salary, postage, and courier expense significantly mitigates, and probably exceeds any surcharge.

But the advantages (and cost savings) extend far beyond simply getting the documents to court. Most modern, robust eFiling systems also include automatic notice and confirmation of filing (or notice of rejection, to alert the firm there is a problem). The need to wait for a confirming postcard and then connect it with the file (all of which chews up more staff time) is eliminated; not to mention the potential for malpractice claims.

Moreover, the e-service capabilities of most modern eFiling systems probably generate even more dollar savings than the court filing piece. In two party cases, the savings will be significant. In multi-party cases, the savings can be extremely large. Again, the savings accrue on both ends of the transaction: On already filed cases, service on all parties is automatic. Moreover, confirmation/proof of e-service is ALSO automatic.

For firms doing bulk filings (like collections and small claims, for example), and for multi-party and class action matters, the entire process of claims and case handling can be streamlined along entirely new models.

There are, of course, some important areas of which firms must be aware and provide due diligence. With eFiling comes a host of new court rules. Where a firm deals with just one court, knowing that court’s rules and aligning the firm’s processes with them will take some effort. (As an aside, automated workflow can be of tremendous assistance.)

Far more common will be firms that deal with multiple courts. While there are various initiatives to achieve some form of standards, the fact is, just as has historically been the case, that it seems like no two courts do things exactly the same way.

Even courts using the same eFiling system may (and probably do) have differing rules. When filings are deemed received may be different. Rules for re-eFiling rejected filings may be different. Fee amounts may be different.

The same thing applies if a court is using an Electronic Filing Manager (EFM). While the actual mechanics of filing will be pretty similar for each court despite possible differences in their eFiling systems, each court is going to have its own set of rules. And as we all know too well, courts can be VERY sticky about insisting on adherence to their variation, no matter how obscure.

Fortunately, documentation, training, and “help desk” support has gotten very good. Many courts offer Continuing Legal Education sessions (with credit) for training and updates, and/or refreshers on the ins and outs of eFiling. Law firms should take advantage of it all and not skimp on staff (including attorney) training.

I expect that my wife reflects the typical view of law firm staff when she energetically (and without prompting from me) declares that she would never go back to the days before eFiling.

Coming up next: Blog 10 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Audit Trail and Confidentiality

 

Data-Centric eFiling

This is Part 6 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 5 here.

It’s easy to think of the key differentiating feature between traditional, paper document filing and eFiling as relating primarily to the method whereby the document is transported and received. That is, physically in traditional filing, and electronically in eFiling. And, of course, that is a key differentiating feature; but only one of many.

Beyond how the document is delivered, consider what is delivered. At the most primitive level, imaged documents – basically, pictures – can be delivered. PDF documents containing image and text are marginally better. Yes, these documents are electronic; but it’s like playing “Where’s Waldo” to find the relevant information on the page. eFiling documents in this way is referred to as “Document-centric eFiling”.

At the other end of the spectrum, there may be no document at all. Data is entered by the sender, validated, transmitted and stored by the eFiling system. Virtually all commerce on the Internet is done using a data-centric approach. The important point is that the focus is on the data, not on any particular document – and once you have validated data in a computer many other efficiencies are possible.

So why do many eFiling systems still use a document-centric approach? The answer lies in tradition. Courts are steeped in it, and the rules were developed before computers existed – so the paper document has reliably served the role as the primary communication vehicle for centuries.

Traditional documents still serve many functions. Most married couples would rather frame their wedding certificate than a URL, for instance. But where a document exists to be a vehicle for transmission and/or a repository of the data, it is simply in the way. So data-centric systems produce documents on-the-fly, when needed.

In addition, there are some very important side benefits to a Court or Prosecutor in adopting a data-centric model: 1) The recipient has reduced data entry costs (and less data entry errors), 2) The filer provides more complete data – because the eFiling system prompts and validates data along the way, 3) cases flow faster with less exceptions, 4) searching and managing cases is more productive, and many other benefits.

The spectrum from most primitive (playing “Where’s Waldo on a screen”) to most sophisticated (totally data-centric) has been labeled the eCourts Maturity Model.  The National Center provides an excellent overview by Bob Roper and Jorge Basta.  Using this model, courts can determine where they fall on the maturity spectrum.

The Maturity Model has two dimensions: First, how closely is data capture, transmission, and storage tied to documents (called the Forms/Documents Migration Dimension); and second, what is the business and technological environment of the court (called the System Characteristics dimension).

100_maturitymodel

eFiling Maturity Model
Bob Roper and Jorge Basta, eCourts Maturity Model, eCourts 2012, December 10, 2013

Along the Forms/Document Migration dimension, the spectrum runs from scanned paper (image based forms) to static PDFs  (static forms) to fixed PDF based forms with data fields (dynamic forms) to wizard-like data entry, where forms are generated later as needed (forms-free).

The Systems Characteristics include factors such as who is filing, what can the eFiling system do (what are its functions and features), how well does it integrate with other systems, how is the system designed (including whether it is based on standards), and how well can the court adapt its culture and business processes to include the new ways of doing things.

With the tremendous strides in the technological power and sophistication of not just eFiling but all court supporting technology, the real question for a court today has shifted  to where the court wants to be. While few may want to be stuck in the lower left corner, not every court is necessarily anxious to try to move all the way to the upper right (see, for example, In Praise of Tortoises). Is the court ready to let go of the paper and wet signatures? Does the court itself, or its partners, have the systems and infrastructure in place to support true forms-free filing?

The point here is that there is a long way to go on the eFiling journey. For lots of reasons, many of them covered in past pieces here, moving to pure data-centric eFiling offers profound benefits. But it takes planning, work, and commitment.  Using the eCourts Maturity Model as one tool can help structure these efforts.

Coming up next: Blog 7 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Criminal Cases

Notes from NACM

72_NACM

Best line of last month’s National Association of Court Managers (NACM) Mid-Year Conference in Savannah, coming late on the last day, as everyone with return flight connections through Savannah or Charlotte (essentially, everyone who wasn’t from Savannah) remained riveted to their flight status updates on their smartphones, universally finding their flights cancelled:

Speaker: “You know what this means, don’t you?”

Silence. Wait for it…

“Underwear rationing.”

Yes; these socks can surely last another day or so…

Which has almost nothing to do with Enterprise Content Management except this: The speaker was relating his state’s experiences with e-Filing, and his second and third most memorable points (to me) were:

1. Far and away the best decision they had made was to go to universal (as opposed to voluntary) e-Filing; and

2. As a result of going to paper on demand, they were

a. ABLE to fully cross-train staff; and

b. REQUIRED to cross-train staff.

We hear the former statement from just about every court that has gone through the paper on demand implementation lifecycle. Indeed, the very term “paper on demand” implies that all documents are managed in electronic format, even if paper is sometimes used. Thus, courts generally find themselves impelled, sooner or later, to electronic management of all documents.

We don’t hear so much about the cross-training point. Not because it isn’t universally true (it is), but because it is often so unexpected that no one thinks to ask. And, once a court has fully implemented paper on demand, the folks really don’t think much about the time when a large portion of staff were required to be fairly specialized and a single absence, even if just a coffee break, could bring an entire functional area to a halt.

I, however, thought back to my 2012 visit to the Ottawa County, Mich., court. [See the October, 2012 Order In The Court posting “After the Dust Settles“.] One of the main points District Court Civil Clerk Laura Catalino emphasized was that, prior to implementation of paper on demand, it was difficult for her and her team to be away from their desks, as only one or two (and sometimes no) other staff knew the desk’s job well enough to fill in. Even scheduling breaks was a challenge; leave aside vacations or illness.

But once paper on demand was in place, automated workflow made cross-training easier and freed up staff time to get cross-trained. Furthermore, other staff could fill in without leaving their own desks, as it was now unnecessary to physically “go to” the files and documents on the desk to be covered.

From Laura’s standpoint as a clerk, the improvement was obvious. The NACM speaker articulated what to me is another compelling reason, as seen from the management perspective: They HAD to cross-train staff in order to equalize the workload across the organization. Had they failed to do so, benefits would have been much more localized and disparate. Some areas would have benefited; while others would have been put under added stress.

As it happened, cross-training resulted in synergistic benefits: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And another–again usually unanticipated, and perhaps counter-intuitive–result occurs. Staff who are cross-trained in numerous functions tend to report greatly enhanced job satisfaction, with commensurate improvement in both productivity and quality of work.

More later on a few interesting observations from the conference. For now, suffice it to say that it was well worth the winter travel adventures and “rationing.” And, Savannah isn’t a bad place to be stranded.

Channeling Ben Hogan: How eFiling Helps Improve Court Data Entry

One of the classic urban legends of golf goes like this:  An amateur once asked, I believe, Ben Hogan, “How can I increase my percentage of one-putts?”   To which Hogan famously replied, “Hit your approach shot close to the hole.”

59_ben hogan

With that broad hint, consider the following trick question:

Question: What is the best strategy for managing court data entry?

Answer:  A) Improve speed.

                B) Improve accuracy.

                C) Reduce Cost.

                D) None of the above

                E) All of the above (including “D”)

The correct answer, of course, is E.  The best strategy for managing court data entry is — Stop doing it.

Hogan’s point was not that there aren’t better ways to make a putting stroke.  And you can believe Hogan knew them all.  His point was, the object of the game is not to hole long putts.  The object is to hit fewer strokes.  Improve your putting stroke all you can; it’s still not as good as having a gimmee after your approach shot.

Likewise, while there are lots of ways to improve court data entry, the objective is to get the information into the court’s data base in a timely manner with as little effort, cost, and chance of error as possible.  In golf, if you can get the ball in the hole without putting (as, say, with a hole-in-one), that’s considered pretty darn good.  For courts, getting data into data bases without data entry is also pretty darn good.

Enter robust, full-featured electronic filing with workflow.  I don’t have to take a position on the question of what constitutes the best or most important aspect of court e-filing.  In golf, some golfers need work on their long game; some on their wedges, etc.  For some courts, cost savings will be most important; for some it will be speed and efficiency; for some it may even be raising revenue by charging attorneys, who benefit greatly from being able to e-file.   I certainly do not minimize the importance of these and numerous other benefits.  But whatever the primary benefit, removing the data entry burden from court staff unarguable gets the ball closer to if not in the hole.

When correctly implemented, e-filing constitutes a win-win situation when it comes to data management.  In today’s world, virtually every document that is filed (at least by attorneys) is created in electronic format.   Thus, just for starters, the e-filer does not (absent anachronistic rules; a topic for another day) need to print out copies to file.  While it may be necessary to enter address, type, and other meta-data in particular places to effect e-filing, this is NOT meta-data that the filer wasn’t already entering in the first place.  In other words, the tasks on the front end may look different (to the extent they are still necessary); but they are not additional or new.

On the court (receiving) end, though, the difference is dramatic.  E-filing with workflow can reduce the court staff’s data entry tasks to quality control — analogous to a six-inch putt instead of a thirty-footer.

Over the past several years, many courts have followed a “staged” approach to implementing Electronic Content Management (ECM) in which the first stage is to move internally to ECM while still receiving filed documents as paper, then scanning them into the court’s ECM system.  As an implementation strategy, this often makes a lot of sense.  It’s sort of like learning to get real good at “lag” putting, to leave the long putts close to the hole.

For such courts, moving quickly on to e-filing should be a top priority.  You’ve mastered the game; now start leaving the ball next to the hole on your approach shot.

How eFiling Improves Access to Justice

trickle-down econmics

A lot of attention gets (quite properly) focused on “Access to Justice”, and the various barriers – physical, social, economic, cultural, and so on – that inhibit people’s ability to appropriately use the justice system. Of these, one major barrier has always been cost—particularly, the cost of quality legal representation.

“Everyone knows” that e-filing can save courts a lot of money (well, maybe not everyone ; but the business case has been pretty clearly proven); and that’s a real incentive to the taxpayers.

Likewise, it’s no mystery that most attorneys avidly support implementation of e-filing, for their own valid business reasons. Indeed, the legal community generally is willing to pay for e-filing in the form of surcharges and/or nominally higher filing fees, because the convenience is so much greater and the total expense of delivery of documents to the court and service on parties is so much less.

But beyond the potential benefits to taxpayers and the self-interest of the private bar, another vast, often unmentioned constituency that stands to gain more perhaps than any other: Attorney-represented court users. E-filing has the potential to greatly reduce the cost of legal representation, thereby dramatically lowering one of the classically high barriers to Access to Justice.

Having been engaged for a number of years in the private practice of law myself, and, currently, married to a hard-working Legal Assistant in a busy law firm, I have some first-hand knowledge of why legal representation is expensive while at the same time (contrary to what most people think) not all that many attorneys are getting rich providing it.

My wife’s firm handles cases in the state and federal courts. I, as a loyal spouse, dutifully listen as she unwinds every day. Interestingly, several years ago, her complaints about filing problems largely concerned her frustration with having to master the [then] “new” process of e-filing with the federal court. Nowadays, her frustration is more about the fact that the state courts have not yet implemented e-filing, and the hassle, interruption, cost, and unreliability engendered because of the need for physically filing documents with them.

Now, I know how much my wife makes; and, given her knowledge and experience, she does not come cheap. I also know that she has more to do in a day than she can ever get done. As a result, every minute she spends working on things like making sure documents get filed is one less minute she has available to spend on fee-generating activities that require her specialized experience and knowledge. All that time that she and the others in her office devote to filing gets charged, of course, to the office’s clients.

There are a myriad of other ways in which e-filing improves Access to Justice. For low-income pro se litigants, for whom filing fees have typically been waived, e-filing systems tend to be “progressive”, in that they allow low income filers and their representatives to file for free. Other improvements include the potential ability to remotely access court documents, thereby eliminating the need to travel, park, etc.; the use of smart forms attached to workflow to improve data entry speed and accuracy (particularly for pro-se filings); the ability to use a local attorney for dealings with remote courts; and so on. But the direct reduction to clients in the cost of legal services as the result of e-filing is both one of the largest and one of the least-often cited benefits to the users of the justice system.

In any discussion of “Access to Justice”, the beneficial impact of e-filing, including potential reduction in cost to those seeking access to the justice system, should be prominently featured.

Look At All Those Trees

As TQM (Total Quality Management) guru William Edward Deming famously observed, 85 percent of an organization’s dysfunction is caused by its systems, and only 15 percent is caused by the people doing the work.  Yet all too often it’s the trees, not the forest, that catch the eye.

A number of years ago, I was talking with a successful and admired Trial Court Administrator (TCA) shortly after he retired.  He was helping his judges select and train his replacement, just as the court was approaching a major technology upgrade, and he related to me the advice he passed on to his successor (here I paraphrase):

 “Every new TCA can come in to any court, look around, and see dozens of things that could benefit from change.  I know you will see those things here.

 “Your instinct is going to be to start to tackle those things, because in many ways, they do need changing.

 “Nevertheless, my advice is, ‘Don’t do it.’  You need to step back and see the forest before you start dealing with the individual trees.  And you will only get one chance to deal with the forest as a forest (the court was on the cusp of a major technology initiative).   Because the real problem, and thus the real solution, has to do with the underlying systems; not the disfunctionality you are seeing at first blush.

 “When the court undertakes implementation of major new technology, which it only gets to do once in a generation, it should be concentrating on the larger system issues, not the surface-level.  If you do it right, you will find that when you have implemented the new systems, most of the existing dysfunction will disappear.  But if you concentrate on the ‘small stuff’ – the list of problems that you see – you’ll end up with the same problems you’re seeing now, only with new and expensive technology.”

 In courts, it’s easy to spot the “trees” because ironically they often show up in paper form, such as filing, storage, data entry, file movement, and so on.  The natural reaction is to address these inefficiency quickly, and with the tools at hand.  Sometimes a partial technology solution is implemented, such as imaging a particular case type, or e-filing a high-volume area, without a well-prepared vision for the “forest”.  But as too many courts have learned to their disappointment, dropping systems into place without first looking at The Big Picture is often expensive and frustrating.  On top of that, it often makes things considerably worse and sours the staff to the technology.

A forest really IS more than the trees.  There are hills and valleys, rivers and streams, animals and plants, and on and on.  It is a giant, intimately connected ecosystem.   If you focus on just the trees, your forest management is not going to be too successful.

Likewise, court document management involves a whole lot more than the documents themselves, whether physical or electronic.  Every document is involved in numerous processes, some simple, some highly complex, and almost all interrelated in myriad, and not always obvious, ways.

The term for this is “workflow”.   Experience shows that attempts to implement  Enterprise Content Management and its components – electronic documents, e-Filing, e-Signature and the rest – without carefully considering the workflow component will, at best, fall far short of expectations and need.  In many cases, it can amount to “automating a mess”, which, as we all know, results in having an automated mess.

Courts should obtain and utilize expert help to carefully map the forest of court processes and “as-is” workflow.   The courts should select “configurable” workflow tools that the court staff can maintain and adapt in the future, so that processes can be changed and the court is not completely dependent on vendors for those changes.  Then decide what the newly re-vamped forest should look like; which streams and valleys should stay; where paths and bridges should be placed and how best to manage the trees.  Finally, determine how a new system will assure realization of the desired to-be forest.

48_look_trees

 As my friend so accurately pointed out, taking care of the forest level will generally work out just fine for the trees.