Process Improvement VS Process Automation – How are they linked? Why are they linked? Why is it important?In this instance, when we talk about Process Automation we are talking about Robotic Process Automation - more commonly known as RPA.What’s RPA?RPA is a way of taking a business process (that would usually be done by an employee) and giving it to a robot to do (well for robot read process automation software tool, but robot is shorter). It is one of the strategies a business can use to primarily contain costs.What! The robots are taking our jobs!?‘Robot’ is a particularly loose term, think of it as a virtual trainee. If a new trainee was hired in your department, would you expect them to take your job? No. A virtual trainee works in exactly the same way.An RPA developer requires the help of the person who presently carries out the process, to ‘train’ a robot. This person is referred to as the Subject Matter Expert or SME. Once trained the robot is eventually left to carry out the process itself, The SME can then get on with more pressing tasks in their day-to-day role.The best candidate processes for automation are structured, repetitive, time consuming and mundane. These are the types of things which prevent the SME from carrying out the most important aspects of their job.An example – A customer services advisor’s role is to take customer calls & provide excellent customer service. Unfortunately, the CRM system in the workplace is horribly dated and they spend half of their day going through a backlog of customer contracts and manually entering as many as possible. It would be quicker and cheaper to teach a robot how to do this instead of overhauling the CRM system. The customer services operator could then better utilise their time by being available to interact with customers.Great! Let’s automate everything!Before you decide to jump in feet first, keep in mind:Automating an inefficient process will not make it efficient.Hence process improvement should always be considered first.What’s Process Improvement?Business Process Improvement (BPI) is a strategic planning methodology aimed at identifying the operations or employee skills that could be improved to encourage smoother procedures, more efficient workflow and overall business growth. This process can also be referred to as Functional Process ImprovementOne of the most common methodologies to employ is “Lean”.What is Lean?‘More value with limited resources’ – is a brief definition of Lean we learn and understand. In today’s world – be it financial services, risk management, product manufacturing or pharmaceuticals – business processes are well documented, re-engineered and re-written to minimize the ‘waste’ and to maximize the business value. Lean believes every business process is a collection and sequence of steps that creates value for its clients when executed in collective manner.(*Waste = anything that doesn’t add value… it can be defects, inventory, wait time, over processing etc. Interestingly, ‘Under-utilisation of Skilled Colleagues’ is also identified as waste in Lean).Benefits of Lean· Reducing waste and improving quality· Increasing more capacities by speeding up the processing· Reducing inventory and· Streamlining the process work flow· Reducing costsThe complimentary combination of Lean and Robotics can be helpful in creating more capacities, bringing more control, more opportunities for jobs that involve ‘intelligent decision making’ – elevating the contribution of work force in the whole process. I don’t care about Process Improvement, bring on the Bots!This is only recommended under one specific circumstance;If there is urgency.An example - A very inefficient sales process has been put forward as a candidate for automation. You are expecting your sales to double in one months’ time. It is unlikely the process could be improved to cope with extra demand within one month. It is also unlikely you would find more staff to cope with extra demand in one month. In this case, using automation as a short-term solution will allow the workload to become manageable.In the long-term, automation alone would not be the optimal solution here. At some point, process improvement would still have to be carried out.So, First Lean… then Automation?Generally, yes . The benefits of this are:
- Faster automation (or ‘training’) time;
- More resilient business processes;
- Longer process lifespans;
- Better utilised RPA resource.
The drawback is that process improvement may take a while to complete since it involves building confidence in SME’s and getting them onboard with process re-engineering.It is worth being mindful that a new streamlined process may take a while to embed within the business. We all know time is money and unfortunately, things are rarely perfect the first time, so begin with this potential scenario in mind.That said, as a general rule it is far better to improve a process before automating it.About the authorZoe Turner is a senior RPA professional at Blucap, a UK based RPA consultancy.