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.


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.


HELP WANTED: Securing a Champion for Your Court IT Initiative


I always say that I don’t object to a fight; I just object to a fair fight.  If I have to be in a fight, I want the big kid on my side.

At last June’s ImageSoft Government Summit, several speakers from courts that had gone through successful implementations of Electronic Content Management systems pointed out that in addition to sponsors, court IT projects need a Champion.  And while at first blush it may seem that the sponsors ARE the champions, that simply is not the case.

I think that, by definition, every project has a sponsor.  Someone has to provide the authority, resources, charter and business reason for the project.  Project managers may be many things, but (at least in the court space) they are not entrepreneurs rustling up their own funding and resources for their own business objectives.

However, far too many projects lack champions.  While sometimes there is a senior person who actively initiates and evangelically champions the effort, that is far from always the case.  And while smaller projects may not need a champion per se, large, transformational projects are extremely difficult to successfully execute without one.  In looking at leading reasons for court IT project failures, lack of an effective, committed champion is at or near the top of every list.

The conference speakers noted that, when it comes to champions, a committee really won’t do.  The need is for a very senior, committed individual.  The Champion will be the key person who personally makes the business and political case to the legislature, county commission or other funding authority.   Because courts are (at the federal, state and in most political subdivisions) a separate branch of government, it is absolutely best if the Champion can speak “peer-to-peer” with the legislative authority.  Thus a judge, particularly if he/she is the presiding or chief judge, is the obvious choice for a court.   The keynote speaker at the Government Summit, The Honorable John C. Foster, Chief Judge of Michigan’s 16th Judicial Circuit Court, provides an excellent example.

The involvement of Champion does not obviate or replace the need for the sponsor(s) and/or steering committees.  The Champion does not (at least primarily) bring the resources.  And, if there is at the outset no Champion, one of the first and most important challenges for the sponsors (say, a Steering Committee) should be to recruit one.

Identification and recruitment of an effective champion represents a significant challenge.  Being a champion of a transformational court IT initiative is not a hobby; and the best candidate will arguably be the busiest, hardest-to-schedule person in the organization.

The Sponsors and their staff will, of necessity, have to gain some familiarity with the technical choices.  The Champion, on the other hand, need not be (and usually is not)  particularly technically knowledgeable.

What the Champion DOES have to be is committed.  If there is a Champion who is already evangelical about the initiative, fantastic.  But, for that commitment to be effective, the Champion must be presented with, and have a clear grasp of,  the link between the strategic, existential needs of the court and the technological solution.

Some good ways to cultivate (and later educate) a Champion include

  • Attend conferences with a focus on court IT that have tracks specifically for sponsors and champions (such as The Government Summit; NCSC’s Court Technology Conference.
  • Visit courts that have successfully implemented the technology and arrange for that court’s Champion to speak with your Champion;
  • Arrange information sessions and demos with a vendor or vendors tailored to the Champion.

An effective Champion works both ways.  Naturally,  the Champion advocates for and defends the initiative both internally and externally.  Likewise, the Champion holds the sponsors, the project team, the court managers and staff, and the vendor accountable.

For IT projects to have a reasonable chance of success, it pays to get the big kid on your side.

The First Law (and How To Overcome It)

52_the first law

With the advent of summer, I look at my garage and contemplate the inexorable truth of Newton’s First Law of Motion, holding that An Object At Rest Tends to Remain At Rest (until and unless acted upon by an external force).  Ah, yes… that certainly explains the clutter.  Why won’t someone just put all that stuff where it belongs?

It probably ALSO goes a long way toward explaining one of the key reasons that Electronic Content Management (ECM)with workflow has such a large impact on court operations.  In my experience, documents are even more resistant to moving on their own than most objects.   Overflowing In- and Out boxes, cluttered desk and counter tops, files on chairs – you name it; we all know it.

Interestingly, it turns out that the attribute of being physical is NOT the only cause of the clutter.  Consider: when I don’t want to deal with an object in the house, I stick it in the garage (just till I figure it out what to do with it), where more often than not it finds a semi-permanent home.  Likewise, moving to electronic documents, in itself, can turn the system into one big garage.  MAYBE things get put where they should be.  MAYBE someone retrieves them and processes them in a timely manner.  MAYBE someone notices if they don’t get processed.  And MAYBE my garage will clean itself up.

More likely, of course, they simply languish in the system.  Indeed, that has too often been the experience of courts that initially move to imaging primarily to free up physical space.  And the resultant problems tend to sour staff, judges, attorneys, and partner agencies on electronic documents.

For these reasons, if for no other (and of course there are MANY other), any justice system planning to implement ECM must include a robust workflow component.  Workflow will make sure that documents get routed to where they need to be.  Moreover, workflow and the attendant reporting, will:

  • flag and report to the proper person (and escalate if necessary) instances where a document has NOT moved as it should;
  • or where, even though it was routed correctly, it has not been processed in a timely manner;
  • or when a process is awaiting a document that never arrived.

Early court and related justice system pioneers of workflow learned that the effort to design and implement workflow as part of their ECM system paid enormous dividends.  In those days, the workflow tools were pretty generic, and the early adopters each had to essentially start with the raw tools and “roll their own”.   The advent of configurable workflow has increased ease and economy considerably, well beyond anything the early adopters had available.  Workflow can be configured and reconfigured as needed to accommodate changes, without the need for expensive programming.

In addition, implementations for courts and related justice agencies can take advantage of “pre-configured” workflows for all courts, case types, and case-specific processes that can be quickly tailored to the unique needs of the court to automate repetitive tasks and standardize processes across multiple departments. In other words, the great bulk of initial development of court and justice system workflow is already done; all that is left is site-specific customization.

To paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz after the Scarecrow’s dance routine,  “If my junk back home could do THAT, my garage would be clean as a whistle!”

ECM Support for Court Performance Measurement: M6 – Reliability and Integrity of Case Files

Recently I discussed the desirability of measuring court performance, and how Enterprise Content Management (ECM) with workflow can be expected to deliver dramatic improvements in File Retrieval,[1] the first of three parts of CourTools Trial Court Performance Measure Six (M6), Reliability and Integrity of Case Files.

The other two standards under M6 are Content Reliability and File Organization and Completeness,[2]  both of which (like File Retrieval) will be greatly improved through implementation of ECM with workflow.  But I now believe there is another important contribution these technology tools can make to court performance improvement that I had not previously considered.

51_ECM Support-Measurement

I recently read the Michigan Supreme Court SCAO Trial Court’s October, 2011 Trial Court Performance Measures Committee Report[3].  The report summarizes efforts in several Michigan trial courts to use CourTools.  I particularly noted the observations concerning the labor-intensive nature of obtaining the necessary data for the Content Reliability and File Organization and Completeness standards.

That’s the usual conundrum: As Bill Gates observed in the interview cited in the previous post, the value of measuring performance cannot be overstated.  And yet, there is a price to pay in the effort to collect the data.  And the tough question is always, “Is the juice worth the squeeze”?  In an era when everyone is struggling just to stay even with daily responsibilities, “non-critical” activities, like collecting performance measurement data, are in a losing battle to get priority.

The Committee Report notes that the Content Reliability tool

“… measures an extremely important aspect of the court’s work: whether the court’s files are accurate. This tool is labor intensive. For every file reviewed, staff must go through each file page-by-page and compare it with the ROA, determining if everything in the file is on the ROA and everything on the ROA that requires a corresponding document is in the file… [T]he person reviewing the files must be knowledgeable about specific types of court files in order to know what they are looking for and to be able to understand the codes used on the ROA.”[4]

Similarly, the Organization and Completeness of the Case File tool

“…  allows the court to ensure that its files are being maintained in accordance with statewide standards. It also ensures that files have the required documentation for each case type. However, it is a labor-intensive task that requires each file be reviewed page-by-page. In addition, all of the files pulled for this exercise must be refiled by staff.”[5]

In other words, these measure are extremely critical, yet they require substantial time by the most skilled and knowledgeable (and probably busiest) people in the court.  It’s a Catch-22.

It occurs to me that ECM with workflow is exquisitely positioned to not only improve Content Reliability and Organization and Completeness of the Case File, but ALSO to provide effective, low-impact methods to harvest the data needed to measure and manage them.

Consider: In a properly designed and implemented ECM system with workflow, all documents will necessarily be in the system, indexed to the Register of Actions.  Rather than have staff “go through each file page-by-page and compare it with the ROA,” the task can be automated — and not just for a small sample set of files.  Exceptions (errors), when found, can not only be reported, but routed to appropriate work queues(s) for both correction and review of what caused the error.

Likewise, “statewide standards” can be captured in workflow rules, and each electronic case file could be evaluated against those rules to assure Organization and Completeness.   Again, both reporting and process improvement can be built into workflow.

Thus, ECM with workflow has the potential to provide a double win: Improvement of the Reliability and Integrity of Files AND automating the measurement and analysis needed to manage them.

[1]Stuck in Traffic“, [insert date of post], [insert link to post]

[2] CourtTools, Trial Court Performance Measures, National Center for State Courts, http://www.courtools.org.

[3] Trial Court Performance Measures Committee Report,  Michigan Supreme Court State Court Administrative Office, October, 2011,  http://courts.mi.gov/Administration/SCAO/Resources/Documents/Publications/Reports/TCPM2011.pdf.

[4] Trial Court Performance Measures Committee Report

[5] Trial Court Performance Measures Committee Report


How Paper-On-Demand Provides Judges with Documents That Work “Better Than Paper” (Part Three)

Having previously considered the judicial requirements for Accessibility and Navigability, and Readability, let’s now take a look at the judicial needs and requirements for Document Manipulation.

Next to readability, manipulation of documents is probably one of the biggest issues for judges considering a move to a paper-on-demand court. Indeed, paper-on- demand, by definition, leaves open the alternative of printing out documents and files for judges who want the physical paper. In the past, some judges have done exactly that. Much of the reason dates back to the “bleeding edge” days in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the available technology simply could not provide the type of interface that could compete in terms of speed and usability with paper.

Some of the modern capabilities that enhance judicial document handling include:

Multi-Touch Display – The ability to bring up and move documents around on the screen using mouse, stylus or one or more fingers, depending on preference.

Dynamic Tabbing/Place-holders – Essentially “virtual fingers”. When looking through a physical case file and flipping back and forth between two or more documents or different pages within the same document, people tend to hold each place with a finger. With paper-on-demand the judge can either have each page on the screen (without having to disassemble the file) or place electronic “sticky tabs” to quickly return to them. (Note: Electronic “sticky tabs” do not fall off!)

Marginal Notes – Either “Public” or “Private” – The ability to affix marginal notes is generally a core requirement for judges. Not only must judges be able to annotate documents, they have to be able to keep some of their notes to themselves or limit access to just other judges. For that reason, they may want their own marked-up copy of a document. Electronic Content Management (ECM) provides this capability in a highly secure fashion. Again, the notes do not fall off; and they have less risk of being seen by unauthorized eyes.

Edit/Save/Distribute – One of the challenges of early document imaging was that it was difficult, if not impossible, to allow judges to quickly and easily edit documents, particularly documents they then needed to sign. Current ECM systems provide simple, easy and secure editing capability for judges.

Today there are fewer reasons to choose paper over electronic documents. Judges can now manipulate electronic documents faster, easier, and more effectively than they can paper. Already, many judges in courts that have implemented systems with these judicial requirements in mind are finding that paper documents simply cannot provide them with the level of ease and control of document manipulation that can be provided by a well-designed ECM system. Indeed, just as courts previously developed (often with great specificity) rules to control the size, shape and paper weight of court documents in order to maximize their “ergonomic” (ease of handling) characteristics, today courts are widely implementing court rules to require and control the characteristics of electronic documents. It makes sense for judges to insist that those characteristics be stated up front as requirements when designing the system, in order to assure them the usability they need.

The final installment of this series will consider how and why Electronic Signature capability is a key requirement in providing a judicial interface to electronic documents that is “Better Than Paper”.

How Paper–On-Demand Provides Judges with Documents That Work “Better Than Paper” (Part Two – Readability)

In our last post we considered two of the key requirements to make a paper-on- demand court workable and usable for judges: Accessibility and Navigability. In this post we turn to Readability.

Readability is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, concerns of judges; and rightfully so. Judges have to read an enormous volume of documents. Years of court rules are built around assuring that documents are readable, from margin and font requirements to specifications as to the grade of paper or whiteness.

Today’s technology can provide displays that are as or more readable than paper. Brightness, color, background, and size are all adjustable for personal needs. And, let’s face it, even with all the rules, how often do judges have to decipher something that is too small to read? You could get a magnifying glass. Or, you could expand the image.

As I pointed out in “Want Judges to Use ECM?”, how a judge needs documents displayed is largely a function of what the judge is doing, and where. In chambers, the judge probably needs a lot of screen space (analogous to being able to have multiple documents open on the desk). Ever been in a motel room with a table the size of a TV tray and tried to work on several files or documents at once? Well, I have; and I don’t recommend it. But that’s what it could be like to try to deal with multiple documents on a single, standard-size computer monitor. So here’s my advice – Don’t Do It.

On the bench judges may still want a readable display with plenty of room; but they ALSO don’t want it to interfere with their interactions with their courtroom – parties, attorneys, jurors, bailiffs, court staff, and so on. A number of styles and types of monitors have been used on the bench. Some have monitors actually built into the judge’s work surface. Where that is either not possible or not desired, tilted “low-profile” screens work well.

And then there is mobile capability, for when the judge is away from chambers and the bench. Documents can be accessed and read from laptops of course; but increasingly, tablets are also an option. Tablets work well for judges for things like reading, simple annotation, quick approval and signing. Of course there are tradeoffs – just like paper. It is hard to lug around a large monitor. Generally, a Windows interface will be necessary for more complex processing. At home, it may be required that judges have the same kind of “real estate” that they need in their chambers if they do significant multi-document work at home.

There is no escaping the fact that the experience of reading documents on an electronic display differs from that of reading paper. For that reason, a fair comparison will require a period of getting used to visual display. However, after a while (usually less than judges expect), usage becomes second nature; and the judge will be unwilling to give up all of the advantages of paper-on-demand that he or she will have come to expect and rely upon.

Current display technology enables display capabilities for electronic documents that, at a minimum, will provide readability at least as good as paper. With some forethought, the technology can (and should be used to) provide a standard of readability that paper documents cannot match.

Requirements closely related to Readability include Manipulability and Signature Capability, which future posts will discuss.

It’s the Journey

On one level, review of the Seven Wastes[i] set forth by Taichii Ohno gives a vision of the Promised Land where all Waste has been eliminated and all activity is productive and generates value.  Anyone currently living in such a place, please contact me and include directions.  A not uncommon reaction (prevalent in, but certainly not limited to, courts) is “Well, that would be nice; but we’ll never get there.”

OK; let’s not argue that point for now (I reserve the right to dispute it later on).  The real-world message, supported by careful analysis of Ohno’s writings, is that managers should strive to eliminate the wastes.  And a huge, if not major, portion of the benefits result from the striving itself, irrespective of the waste-free purity of the final result.

The fact is that just getting started creates unexpectedly large opportunities for improvement.  For one thing, simply mapping out the court’s processes and documenting the “As Is” state is always tremendously enlightening.  It will uncover a lot of the “we’ve always done it that way” process steps that need to be rooted out and eliminated. Taking the results and comparing them to the symptoms of the Seven Wastes (see the previous postings) will provide immediate feedback on potential areas for savings and improvement.

Likewise, finding a court that has successfully implemented configurable workflow and taking a tour[ii] invariably results in immediate insights as to areas ripe for rapid improvement.  One key, as successful courts will always acknowledge as a “lesson learned”, is not to let pursuit of the “perfect” become a barrier to the possible.  It really IS the journey; not the destination.

It can be worthwhile, preliminary even to full-blown mapping analysis of the “As Is” state, to conduct an “Opportunities Analysis” based on the Seven Wastes.  This involves searching for and documenting some of the occurrences of the known symptoms of the wastes (for example, movement of files or stacks of orders waiting to be signed).  The cost of these wastes and the potential savings from their elimination can be easily quantified, giving a very preliminary, but believable and understandable picture of just what level of savings are potentially available. 

This type of analysis can be done quickly at low cost[iii], and can be quite useful in helping to recruit and educate an executive “champion”, which all major change initiatives require.  Potential champions – those responsible for the effective operation of the courts, such as Presiding Judges, Clerks of Court and Court Administrators – are painfully aware that the wolves are at the door in the form of shrinking budgets, increasing public demands, exploding complexity and increased accountability.  As executives, it is their job to undertake proactive steps and make these big decisions.  By highlighting how ECM and configurable workflow powerfully and directly empower courts to confront and reduce (if not eliminate) the Seven Wastes, potential “champions” can gain some confidence that the efforts are not only worthwhile, but are doable in a practical sense.

Striving to eliminate waste from court operations is an undertaking that should never end.  The greatest problem is not reaching the conclusion (there never will be one as the orchard of waste in courts approaches infinite in size).  It is in making a start and adopting the habit and mindset of waste elimination.  ECM with configurable workflow offers, among many other things, the opportunity to harvest a lot of low hanging fruit.

[i] TIMWOOD – Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over Processing, Over Production, and Defects.  See previous posts.

[ii] Let me know if you’d like to set up such a conversation and tour and I’ll put you in touch with one or more such court.

[iii] Again, contact me if interested