We share six aspects of process automation that complement and accelerate operational excellence to help you establish your processes with intentionality and get you better results.
The mantra of the Six Sigma Black Belts and the Lean experts, “Process First! Automating a bad process just gets you bad results faster!” seeks to find solutions to convoluted, wasteful processes.
The methodology in these approaches has been around for years (1986 and 1991, respectively), and is based on grounded, timeless principles that still work very effectively today.
However, in the last 30 years, technology has upgraded, to say the least. We have an opportunity to automate processes much more easily, using Robotics Process Automation (RPA) and Business Process Management Software (BPMS) tools, to name two.
Considering end-to-end automation while taking a “process first” approach might sound counterintuitive, but think of it like building wooden chairs:
The materials and method you have to work with will drive the future state process design. When building a chair, your source lumber might be dimensional, surfaced or rough-cut, which requires different levels of processing. Likewise, your source data might be from a database, website, PDF or other unstructured source.
For tools, you may have a bandsaw to easily and quickly make curved cuts, a jigsaw, less stable than a bandsaw but easier to use, or a handsaw, which takes lots of manual power and time. Similarly, your business might have BPMS, which organizes and automates processes in a highly structured manner, RPA, less stable than BPMS but easier to implement, or manual processing, which takes a lot of power and time.
There are so many ways to cheaply automate, and you need to consider that automation for every step in your processes. Reserve manual tasks for uniquely human processing: complex decisions, approvals, deep analysis, team collaboration and so on. Automate everything else. Otherwise, you’re wasting your valuable employees.
Let’s explore six aspects of process automation that complement and accelerate operational excellence:
1. Designing with automation in mindsets up more long-lived, sustainable processes.
With automation in mind, process design needs to take a different lens, thinking about automation opportunities from the start with these questions:
- What is the quality of data we’re collecting and using? Is it structured, from a template, or in a PDF?
- What systems or applications are involved? How much access do we have to both the front and back ends?
- Do we have a no- or low-code platform with the ability to build custom automations (such as BPM or RPA)?
- Does this require a human-in-the-loop (for key decisions, analysis, approvals, reviews, and more)?
If you don’t design with automation in mind, you may keep a manual data clean-up process that requires the process to output data to clean-up and then input to the next step when those three (or more) steps could be built in early in the flow. Automating this clean-up task later is possible, but you’ll reduce your options for automation.
2. Enterprise Resource Plans (ERPs) are becoming less customized.
Traditional automation includes custom code built within an ERP to match business requirements. The need to stay current with the most recent ERP update makes custom code difficult to manage and therefore obsolete over a few patches and upgrades. Customization needs to be outside these types of systems. Business requirements change often, so creating automation solutions must be easier and more flexible to future adaptation. BPMS is a low-code platform that is both easy and flexible.
3. Enterprise Automation is an imperative with a continued labor shortage.
Google “long term labor shortage” and you’ll find several recent studies and articles citing the macro-economic statistics telling the story that labor shortage is something we’re not going to solve soon. You need your people to do the most valuable work – redesigning your processes to include automation isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity. Instead of hiring two people to process your new vendor contracts, for example, you could build a bot to handle that. The concept of Enterprise Automation – automating all the gaps in between core applications – should be on every leader’s top priority list.
4. Automation is within reach of the business, which no longer needs to be reliant on IT.
Custom automation within IT is a heavily controlled, cumbersome process where your business’s small automation needs are often prioritized behind major company initiatives. IT will likely never automate your manual, rules-based, structured-data business process that takes eight hours every week will likely never be automated if it’s a queued ticket.
The good news is that you can automate it by the RPA Center of Excellence (COE) or with a citizen developer on your team. An RPA COE should have an intake form where you can input the details of your process so they can automate it. Now your team has eight more hours every week to spend on qualitative analysis and other high-value tasks.
5. Process mapping can easily accept automation notation.
Mapping out current- or future-state processes should include a denotation technique, as seen below, to clearly identify where the opportunities lie. There might not be an immediate ability to implement the automation but having it in the design and automation backlog will mean it’s only a matter of time.
The generic workflow below denotes the automation opportunities with blue stars. While reviewing several processes, this easily identifiable notation can quickly give your team a clear view of overall automation value.
6. The most productive automation COEs are coupled closely with the business.
Top performing organizations have Operational Excellence (OpEx) or Continuous Improvement (CI) COEs, and they have had these for years. These COEs work closely with the business and have built a backlog of process opportunities to re-engineer. Often, they are tied into strategic plans and prioritize their projects based on C-suite direction.
Most RPA or Automation COEs, on the other hand, currently exist within IT. The backlog is often full of low-value, tactical tasks like automating the clean-up of a weekly report in Excel. There is little alignment with the business or anything strategic. Ideally, the Automation COE backlog closely matches with strategic initiatives, and the backlog reflects that.
It should sit on the business side. Ideally, it is integrated into the Operational Excellence COE. Most clients that struggle with their automation initiatives don’t have the necessary commitment from the business, so aligning it with the OpEx COE would help solve that.
Where do you begin? Here’s a “starter” sample list to get your juices flowing:
- Establish an OpEx COE or a team of process SMEs.
- Establish an Enterprise Automation program. RPA is a good place to start, but don’t forget about the power of a well-designed BPMS or utilizing functionality within your current tech stack, like in a CRM like Salesforce, HRMS such as Workday, ERP like SAP, or even self-serve data warehouse.
- Integrate your automation program with your OpEx COE.
- Build your backlog of projects by integrating with the strategy, identifying related processes at the highest level and then following the flow down to the lower levels to identify automation opportunities and prioritize accordingly.
- Design future state with automation in mind, including automation subject matter experts.
- Funnel tasks flagged for automation to the automation developers.
As you can see, process and automation go hand in hand and, when done well, can positively affect not only your bottom line but quality, customer experience and employee satisfaction. When you design processes with automation in mind, you keep “Process First” and get good results faster and more consistently.