JOHANNESBURG – What a great time to be a customer or a vendor as the technology to automate processes has really evolved to make it very economically viable to implement. This combined with the current drive to digitise infrastructure and operations, affirms that there is no better time to start on the automation journey.
There are different ways to approach your automation roadmap all of which may hold elements of value, but they do not always factor in the big picture. Often solutions overcomplicate the process to be automated and do not yield results in a timely manner. So, what is the answer? There is a simple 4-step approach that depending on the size of your organisation and the complexity of your processes can be scaled accordingly.
Step 1: Process Selection
There will be many processes that can be considered for automation and it may not be apparent at first glance which one will yield the best results. It is therefore important to list all the key processes while gathering basic process metrics to assist in the final prioritised ordering.
The following metrics can be used to help qualify a process:
RPA automation percentage
Low percentage chance for automation requires either a lot of development work, possibly AI integration, or a high level of manual intervention and so the cost and time investment will be higher
Defined as low, medium, high and based on input methods, application type and number of, free text and environment
Direct quantifiable savings
Time-based on how many FTEs are required for the process
Volume and frequency of transactions to be processed
Cost saving. Mostly related to time-saving and the automation percentage
Level of frustration and tedium that leads to low staff morale and poor results
Compliance in providing automatic audit trails
Automating high-risk processes can remove human error
These metrics can then be equated into a monetary value to assist in the prioritisation of the processes. Depending on the overall company strategy it may still mean that certain processes are deemed more important even though they may not be at the top of the list. A method to assist in this decision-making process is to further split the processes list into four quadrants: low hanging fruit, quick wins, long term improvements and must do improvements.
Once this exercise is completed the process most suited to be automated is selected and moved onto the next stage.
Step 2: Process Optimisation
Often it is at this point that developers are eager to get started but no automation should begin at this stage until the process is fully reviewed and optimised. As Bill Gates said, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
This process of optimisation may be painful as it will potentially challenge the organisational culture, especially one that has not fully begun their digitisation journey. Comments such as “we have been doing it like that for years” and “why do we need to change something that is already working” can be expected. Having a trusted technology partner to assist at this stage is critical to provide a level of objectivity to the exercise. The results of the optimisation process may even mean that the process is no longer required or that it is amalgamated into another more suitable process. In this case, return to step 1 and select the next process on the list to automate followed once again by optimisation. There are no hard and fast rules to optimisation, but this step should not be rushed and should be done in conjunction with the team that will automate the process in the end.
Step 3: Process Automation
When you reach step 3 in the process, it should be well-defined what process is being automated and why. It is often easy to now rush straight into the development process to deliver results as soon as possible but this is unlikely to yield the right kind of results. For instance, it is often a mistake to tackle medium to large processes in one go. It is much easier, yields better results, with greater end-user buy-in to rather split the process into smaller logical sections and then automate these.
To still achieve a quick return and to ensure that the process is manageable the following project phases are recommended:
Proof of Concept (3-6 weeks), Pilot (10-12 weeks) followed up the final Rollout phase.
Within each of the phases the same set of development steps are performed (to a greater or lesser degree depending on the phase) combining a waterfall and agile iterative methodology as follows:
Requirements gathering and production of Process Definition Document (PDD)
Iterative Agile development cycles consisting of:
Development planning meeting (project team and end users)
Implementation and testing
Demonstration and sign off (project team and end users)
Step 4: User Acceptance
The last step (and one that is often neglected) is absolutely vital, as without continuous end-user involvement the automation process may be set to fail from the start. Getting users onboard as soon as possible in the process selection, optimisation and automation will ensure greater uptake at the end. It will also ensure that what is being done as an optimised manual process will be replicated and possibly exceeded using the automated process.
The ideal end user representatives are those that understand the process to be automated and are familiar with the technology used to develop the solution. It is not always the case that the end user has a grasp on the technology being used so it is important to have the right materials to assist and guide them through the process. The key elements to ultimate user acceptance is to deliver high-quality usage instructions, provide an intuitive easy process, good training and ongoing support.
Following this 4-step approach should ensure an incremental and successful delivery of your automation goals. It worth taking the time before starting any operation to make sure that there is a good fit between the customer and vendor providing the services. Having a partnership based on trust ensures that the best results are achieved and everyone in the relationship feels they are getting good value. Happy automating!
Grant Hesse is the chief technology officer of North Wind Digital. The views expressed here are his.