“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
So, the last thing you want is to have your first step begin in a deep puddle of mud, right? This is often what it feels like for companies who are starting their automation journey.
Robotic process automation (RPA) can be a game-changer when it comes to managing business operations within your company, but where is the best place to start?
Let’s explore this important first step to see how to avoid the mud puddles along the way.
There is plenty of hype surrounding the adoption of RPA. Analyst firm Gartner estimates that the RPA market is a $21B global market that has only attracted more attention in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies are looking to reduce the dependency on humans for routine operational processes while helping their employees focus on building better customer experiences.
That all sounds great, but WHERE exactly do you start?
Well, let’s first explore the reality of most corporate environments. It’s highly likely that most of the company is run by experienced people who have learned how to cope through the vacuum of defined processes. In many smaller organizations, this lack of defined processes is understandable, but in larger, more established companies, it’s likely due to a steady employee base that has simply learned how to do the work. This tribal knowledge is common, but it does make it difficult to understand how broad, cross-functional processes like employee onboarding and insurance claims processing work. Each functional team knows what they need to do, but their unwritten processes lack clear end-to-end visibility.
In addition to this reality, it’s likely that the employees who have been working to support these complex processes have done so long enough that they instinctively understand the next steps to take when inconvenient situations arise. There is likely a go-to person who has the experience to manipulate the systems to get the transactions to process, and everyone knows who that person is. However, when looking at automating a process, you need to understand what is done and why. This will enable you to adopt appropriate rules to support the automation properly.
Building an Automation Attitude
It’s now quite common for employees to work apart from each other. For many, remote work arrangements introduced the need for more collaboration tools, but also uncovered some of the hidden risks of not having processes documented properly. When an employee who traditionally handled specific tasks became unavailable due to illness or childcare responsibilities, potential bottlenecks were made abundantly clear.
To avoid challenges like this one in the future, you must identify the top processes to start your RPA journey, and the first step is to adopt an automation attitude. Each process leads to an outcome that will help you determine the reason an automation might be necessary. For example, the outcome of processing invoices is managing cash flow for the organization and avoiding late fees. The actions that go into this outcome may have changed many times over the decades as new people, systems, contracts, and departments became a part of the overall process. Reviewing the “as is” state of a process is critical as it will uncover inconsistencies and gaps that depend on people to manage manually.
But adopting an automation attitude shouldn’t stop at simply identifying the current state. Instead, you’ll want to continue to review it through the lens of the outcome of that process. Maintaining an emphasis on outcome throughout the entire journey will reduce the potential to simply focus on reducing workload for a particular group of people. There is a possibility that work may change for certain people within the process as parts of their work are automated. And the new work for these people may now include more challenging efforts related to analyzing the variances or increasing transaction counts. Rather than asking “who” should carry out specific activities, it would be better to question “how” the work will get done.
Keys to a Great Automated Process
Finding the top processes to start your RPA journey requires knowledge of which steps or components within the process would benefit from automation. Most of these processes have three attributes in common: high transaction volume, repetitive actions, and access to structured data. Let’s explore each of these in further detail.
High transaction volumes
Intuitively, you may be considering the processes that involve the highest transaction volume to get the most impact from automation. However, just because an activity has many transactions doesn’t mean it’s the best fit. If your journey started by hiking up a mountain, you might get discouraged on the way to the summit or simply look up at the path to the top and decide not to start at all.
Likewise, while automating the transactions that involve the most complex system interactions might be your end goal, it’s probably not a suitable place to start. In these situations, segregate the process into multiple parts and start by automating the easiest part first.
For example, instead of taking on the entire accounting process, start with reconciling the bank accounts first. Then move on to managing the sales order invoicing process or the financial reporting. Each part becomes a manageable task that will lead to automating the complete high-transaction volume process.
When you think about automation, you may conjure up visions of an assembly line where various actions are applied to an object as it moves down the line, for example, when wheels are being mounted on an automobile in a factory. These repetitive actions allow for a robot to be designed to automate the actions. Sometimes there are complex actions, while others are quite simple. The key is that they are repetitive and high-volume. Processes that occur once a month or once a year may be useful to automate for accuracy but may not provide the return on the investment of time it takes to automate these processes.
When looking to identify the top processes to start your automation journey, select repetitive, mature processes that involve less-complex actions, as these are easier to automate.
For example, while automating digital ad-buying within a new marketing plan may seem straightforward, without an historical process or outcomes, it will require changes until it is stable enough to automate. Processes that involve many systems also may be too complex to start with, simply because maintaining these processes may require more attention on the many moving parts. As your operations and your processes mature and your teams gain more experience, return to review the more complex processes.
When building an automated process, the rules that govern the execution of the automation must also manage data that can be easily read by computers. While people may easily read and understand the details in a new vendor’s invoice, it will require multiple steps for a computer to decipher.
First, the paper form must be digitized into an image that can be evaluated by an optical character recognition (OCR) program that transforms the numbers and letters on the image into electronic data that the computer can read. Then an intelligent document processing (IDP) program will need to evaluate that data to determine the significance of various line items such as those that make up the payment terms or mailing address. Then the automation can enter that data into the payment system and look up the purchase order to validate the line items from the order.
Getting to the critical data in this example takes many steps. While this is routinely done in countless organizations, it may not be the right process to start your RPA journey. A better starting process might be interacting with systems that can be read easily with RPA and then evaluated as part of the rules to manage the execution of the process. The data is already in a form that the computer understands, which allows the RPA system to quickly handle the automaton.
Now that you understand what it takes to uncover the right processes to automate, it’s an amazing time to get started!
Planning and preparation are important but taking that first step, then the next, will get you even closer to achieving your goals. With deep knowledge of your company and processes, your people can provide valuable guidance to help you start building solutions that increase your efficiency.
One tool that can help you along your automation journey is Blue Prism's Process Assessment Tool which can help you assess processes for their automation readiness and potential business value and create a consistent pipeline of automation opportunities.
Like any journey, there will be peaks and valleys to trek through, so enjoy the peaks and celebrate the wins knowing that each valley will lead towards another peak ahead.
RPA 101 Series
This blog post is part 2 of a 5 part series. Check out the other posts below and stay tuned for the next two!