Why the last thing you want to do is automate

Process is one of the most commonly used terms, but least understood aspect of most corporations, regardless of size. Generally, people accept that they are a vital component of good business practice, but ways to address them beyond generating reams of documentation or gigabytes of images seem limited and theoretical. Methods that actually utilize, let alone optimize processes, have been poorly defined or generally ineffective across a vast range of theories and ‘best’ practice offerings. Businesses faced with variations of ‘best’ should at least be asking themselves ‘best for whom?’.

As a result, any proposed solution that seems to offer the means to tangibly improve processes is considered or adopted enthusiastically. This is evident in the current rise in popularity of Robotic Process Automation (RPA). RPA applications are designed to automate repetitive, mundane manual tasks such as data entry, through the integration of databases, applications and websites. Functionally, it’s very similar to the ability to record and replay macros in popular spreadsheet applications. The ability to repeat preprogrammed tasks is not a new concept, and has its lineage in the CNC, CAM and CIM production systems of manufacturing.

The benefits of automated, robotic systems include increased process productivity achieved through greater efficiencies, improved quality through the reduction of defects and errors, and the ability to utilize personnel on higher value, cognitive tasks. All worthy aspects of the process promised land that managers have yearned for over the years. However, though the value of automated solutions like RPA are clear, managers should think twice before implementing them without first attending to some fundamental process improvement prerequisites if they hope to maximize potential benefits.

In the case of RPA, it’s crucial to verify three things, 1) whether a process needs to be automated, and if so, 2) that it’s optimized as much as possible prior to automation, and 3) that you know the exact tasks that would benefit most from automation within the process. Those benefits should be measurable and accountable enough for management to justify the time, cost and effort of automation. Effective process improvement should methodically address the following sequence of functions:

1) validation– does the process need to be done in the first place?

If not, what’s the benefit of doing something useless faster? This is generally judged on the basis of business requirements, value add or cost/benefit.

2) integration– is it possible to increase the efficiency and seamlessness of interfaces between components, departments or processes?

3) consolidation– is it possible to further optimize the systemic efficiency and productivity of components, departments or processes by combining and centralizing redundant or compatible groups?

4) automation– is it possible to reduce the level of effort, cost, defect rate and time associated with manual tasks within the process through system or software-based facilitation?

Notice that automation sits last in the sequence of process improvement functions that should be performed. It should also be noted that the ability to optimize processes through integration, consolidation and automation is heavily dependent upon the availability of comprehensive data about the process itself. Data requirements that are generally beyond the reach and scope of most flowchart and swim lane diagrams and applications. Therefore, corporations should first verify they have the foundation systems needed to support process data analysis, rather than just process documentation.

TOPO is a software-as-a-service, business analysis engine developed by Partisan Consulting, Ltd. Users are given the means to fully interact, understand and work within a touch-enabled environment of 3D process models, integrated operational data, facilitated analysis, auto-generated standard operating procedures and references. To learn more, please visit our website at TOPO page, or the TOPO Business Analysis Engine page on Facebook.

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