In today's dynamic business landscape, organizations are constantly seeking innovative ways to optimize their operations, boost efficiency, and drive better outcomes. The transformative power of automation, particularly Robotic Process Automation (RPA), has emerged as a game-changer in this pursuit. However, the true essence of automation often gets lost amidst misconceptions. Automation does not eliminate a process or the need for people responsible for it. Rather, it transforms the process, the business outcomes it produces, and the composition of the team responsible for it.
The Essence of Transformation
Organizations have many operational processes which they execute every day. Common examples are issuing or paying invoices, updating records, fielding customer inquiries, validating customer eligibility for a particular service or set of terms, and more. Once these processes have enough volume, whole operational teams will be responsible for them. At that point, it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees. When the organization starts thinking about process improvement or automation, the most tangible “thing” that people see and therefore start thinking about is the operations team itself. The question becomes “how can we automate the work the team does?” instead of “how can we automate the process?” The distinction is subtle but particularly important.
When someone thinks about automating a team, they envision the future state being one in which the team and, implicitly, the process itself do not exist anymore. They can start thinking that “automate x” means “eliminate x.” That is not how automation works.
This is an essential point to internalize as you engage automation opportunities. Without truly understanding this, organizations run a much greater risk of failure in their automation program.
The Case of Parts Unlimited
Imagine Parts Unlimited, a renowned manufacturer of household appliance replacement parts. Their customers include large national retailers, regional warranty service providers, and local independent repairpersons. Each day, they process hundreds of purchase orders, invoices, return slips, and refund requests. Many of these requests are PDFs that arrive via email. Each customer or vendor tends to have a single format for each type of document. Some customers (especially larger ones) have multiple formats. Most of the documents are digital PDFs while some are scanned images of printouts. Some arrive with handwritten notes on them. Still, other documents arrive via fax.
Parts Unlimited operations team processes all these documents as well as the associated accounts payable, accounts receivable, and order entry tasks. Because these are very manual processes, the size of the operations team needs to increase as Parts Unlimited’s sales volume increases. Faced with a daunting workload and seeking a better way to scale, the company sets a daring goal - to double their business without increasing the size of their operations team. To achieve this feat, they turn to automation as a catalyst for change.
Parts Unlimited plans to automate the accounts payable and accounts receivable processes first. After analyzing the data, they find that there are over 1,000 different formats of purchase orders and nearly 350 different invoice formats. In addition, the team routinely encounters new formats from new customers or suppliers.
Some of these formats are from customers or suppliers with whom Parts Unlimited does business rarely, they only encounter each of these formats a couple times per year. Recognizing that automating all formats is neither efficient nor cost-effective, they prioritize automating the high-volume and repetitive tasks, leaving the unique, low-volume cases to be handled manually.
After Parts Unlimited automates all the formats and edge cases that make business sense, the operations team has far less work to do. The makeup of the team needs to change to reflect the changing workload.
Transformation of the Operations Team
As the workload shifts from standard, high-volume tasks to unique, low-volume cases, the composition of the operations team undergoes a transformation. The team now requires experienced individuals with in-depth domain knowledge to handle unusual and unexpected documents effectively. Simultaneously, they need fewer less experienced team members who would previously handle standardized, high-volume cases that are now automated.
Moreover, the team's focus shifts from being solely task-oriented to being more involved in the administration, monitoring, and evolution of the automated process. They must keep a close eye on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as volume, the number of cases that require manual handling, and the emergence of new cases. The team must also proactively anticipate and adapt to changes by continuously evolving the automation to meet evolving requirements.
Embracing the Change
For the transformation to be successful, the operations team must embrace its role as a key driver of automation, rather than fearing it as a threat to their jobs. The team's expertise becomes invaluable in ensuring the smooth functioning of automated processes and handling complex cases that cannot be automated. In this new paradigm, the team becomes more proactive, continuously improving the process, and upgrading the automation when needed.
It is crucial for organizations to recognize that the process itself remains a core part of the business and requires diligent documentation, business continuity plans, and procedures for upgrades to accommodate future requirements and cases.
The Rewards of Transformation through Automation
The benefits of automation transformation are abundant and far-reaching. In addition to achieving their goal of not increasing the size of their operations team, there are a number of benefits Parts Unlimited achieves as their automation program grows. By leveraging RPA effectively, Parts Unlimited and other organizations can achieve:
- Greater Effectiveness: With automated processes, the chances of errors and inconsistencies reduce significantly, leading to enhanced overall effectiveness.
- Greater Efficiency: Automation minimizes the time required to complete tasks, enabling the team to focus on high-value activities.
- Greater Scalability: Automated processes can handle larger volumes of work without requiring a proportional increase in the workforce.
- Better Quality: Automation ensures consistent and standardized outcomes, thereby improving the quality of deliverables.
- Better Cycle Time: The time to complete tasks is reduced significantly, leading to faster cycle times.
- Greater Visibility: With real-time monitoring and reporting, the operations team gains better visibility into process performance.
- Better Cost Structure: Automation optimizes resource allocation, leading to cost savings in the long run.
- Cost Avoidance: By reducing errors and rework, automation helps avoid unnecessary costs.
- Better Employee Morale and Retention: Automation relieves team members from mundane and repetitive tasks, leading to improved job satisfaction and retention.
- Greater Customer Satisfaction: Improved efficiency and reduced errors lead to enhanced customer experiences.
Navigating the Change
As organizations embark on their automation journey, it's crucial to plan for the necessary change management. Proper communication, training, and support are essential to help the operations team embrace automation and understand their evolving roles. When a team feels included and brought along for the change instead of having it forced upon them, they’re much more likely to embrace it. A strong change management strategy ensures a smooth transition, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and innovation among staff from bottom to top.
In conclusion, automation, particularly RPA, is a powerful tool that transforms operations teams, allowing them to achieve greater efficiency, scalability, and customer satisfaction. Rather than eliminating operations teams, automation empowers them to focus on higher-value activities, apply their expertise, and contribute to continuous process improvement. As organizations embrace automation transformation, they must approach it with a strategic mindset, emphasizing change management and skill development to leverage the full potential of RPA. Embracing this paradigm shift will lead to a more agile, efficient, and successful business environment.