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.


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

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