Enhancing, Not Erasing: The Positive Impact of Automation on Operations Teams

Published By Ken Furlong

Published On March 21, 2024

At Acme, Inc., a journey toward automation reveals a transformative truth: automation isn't about replacing teams, it's about redefining roles and unlocking potential. Acme, Inc. is a small but rapidly expanding commercial services firm with significant growth goals for the next few years.

With their recent private equity investment, the team focuses on efficiency and measurable ROI in all manners of business. The Acme team deals with hundreds of vendors and clients with varying systems and invoicing requirements. As the company grows, the service and accounting teams find it increasingly difficult to keep up with the volume of client and vendor requests. Rather than hiring a large new team, they choose to investigate process automation to take on the extra volume. They first focus on investigating the processes that have the greatest potential for a return given their volume.

As the team begins to investigate process automation, there is some confusion. When some employees hear “automate a process” they envision eliminating the process – or at least all the work associated with it. There is an implicit idea that “once we automate the process, the effort associated with it goes to zero.”

Sometimes, it’s advantageous to eliminate a process. Processes that used to make sense can slowly become irrelevant without anyone noticing. This can happen when no one truly owns the process and its impact on the business. It can also happen when there are changes in technology, customer needs, regulatory requirements, partner agreements, or the economy.

Usually, though, as in the case of Acme, Inc., the process is still necessary to deliver value, manage risk, or remain in regulatory compliance. Automating an Accounts Payable process, for example, will not eliminate the need to process invoices – but it will change how the need is satisfied. When automating, the process continues to be executed – but the execution is performed by computers rather than humans. An organization must also administer the process and evolve it as requirements or the environment in which it operates changes.

This is most intuitive when it comes to the automation of physical processes – such as in a factory. Just because a factory automates the assembly of a particular item, doesn’t mean that there is no human effort associated with that process. Humans are still needed to oversee the process, ensure smooth operation, and maintain and evolve the automation over time.

Digital automation has the same dynamics. In the case of Acme, Inc., the accounting team focuses on the optimized completion of the vendor invoicing process, not eliminating it. Automation transforms how the process is accomplished and the work of the team responsible for it.

How the process transforms

The process transforms in terms of how it is accomplished. Rather than individual employees manually typing on a keyboard, the computer performs the work directly.

For this to happen, though, the process must be transformed as well. For computers to execute a process, it needs to be highly standardized. For the vendor invoicing process, Acme Inc. can no longer rely on years of experience of individual employees. The steps must be formalized and based on clear rules a computer can follow. This standardization is useful and valuable even if no automation were to take place. It makes the process more effective, reliable, and open to future modification.

Acme’s example process also transforms to include human touchpoints. There may be edge cases the automation cannot handle and which require further judgment.

Metrics such as how many transactions or cases it has handled, how many were exceptions requiring human attention, the cost or runtime of the process, and more can be added to the workflow of the automation. These metrics can be valuable for future decisions to modify the enhanced process.

Operations team looking over processes

How the team transforms

How humans interact with the process is also part of the transformation. Automating the execution of the process also allows the team to see the forest for the trees – to own, manage, and administer the process.

For example, the Acme, Inc. team will monitor the process's flow, whether it is generating the desired output, and how frequently exceptions occur and patterns among the exceptions. These activities are important but often don’t happen when teams are occupied with doing the work directly.

In addition, the Acme, Inc. team is now “outside” of the process and can approach it more objectively than they could when they were “inside” the process doing the work. As a result, they assess whether the process produces the desired business outcome (as distinct from the output), how to handle new cases that come up, and how to continuously improve the process. These activities are high-value-add activities that the team is only able to accomplish when relieved of the day-to-day burden of executing the process.

In this new state, the team can deliver more value to Acme, Inc. both reactively and proactively. Most immediately, their measurement and reporting capabilities improve. In addition, teams often evolve new capabilities over time that the organization never had access to before.

Organizations must plan accordingly

While these benefits are enormous, organizations must plan accordingly to fully realize them. Considerations must be made at both the program level and the individual process level.

Plans at the program level

At an automation program level, the organization has several factors that require leadership’s attention, including change management, infrastructure, and prioritization of projects.

For example, here are some important questions to consider.

  • Does the anticipated impact of automation require dedicated change management personnel?
  • Even if it doesn’t, how will change be managed?
  • Will automation trigger the need for retraining of any employees?
  • What does the communication plan look like (to employees directly and indirectly affected by the automation)?
  • How will changes be deployed incrementally to manage risk and expectations?
  • What if any new infrastructure is required?
  • How will automation work be prioritized throughout the organization?
  • What are the key strategic benefits the organization needs to focus on to achieve its automation goals?
  • Are there places within the organization where it makes sense to focus initially?

For example, Acme, Inc. has prioritized its account and service teams first due to the increase in customer demand. The decision to prioritize these areas of the business over another may require communication to other departments about why they were chosen first.

Plans at the process level

Planning is also necessary at the individual process level. Even if 100% of the execution of a process will be automated, leadership needs to plan for the cost of infrastructure (servers, licenses, etc.) that will be necessary.

In addition, there will still be personnel costs such as

  • Management and administration of the process day-to-day.
  • Maintaining the automation (which will require attention when the underlying systems change).
  • Modifications to the process as the business needs to evolve.
  • Planning for the team’s composition, schedule, current capabilities, and technology requirements.

Perhaps the starkest change in this list is the team’s composition. The team will now need to include (even if just on a fractional basis) technical personnel to ensure automations run smoothly, maintain automation when underlying systems change, and modify automations when requirements evolve.

In addition, the subject matter experts (SMEs) who used to execute the process will need to realign their ways of working around management and administration rather than execution. While they may not have had the time or bandwidth to focus on things like process throughput, scalability, error rate, and reliability, those are now their primary responsibilities. These responsibilities may require supplemental training, information, and tooling. Even something mundane like scheduling may need to adjust as a result. All these changes require planning to minimize confusion and disruptions.

To help manage this change and the risk inherent in any automation project, careful planning must also be done for automation deployment and how to roll out changes incrementally and in such a way that changes can be rolled back. This approach both limits the risk and limits the amount of change the team needs to absorb at one time.


Automation transcends the mere mechanization of tasks; it represents a transformative shift in how teams operate and contribute value. This story of transformation is not unique to Acme, Inc. but is a testament to the potential that lies within every organization ready to embrace automation.

  1. Beyond Cost-Savings: While automation is well-known for its cost-saving potential, its true value lies in enhancing operational efficiency, improving quality, and reducing cycle times. These benefits extend beyond measurable metrics, fostering a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.
  2. Empowering Teams: A crucial outcome of this transformation is the elevation of the team's role. Automation does not render human expertise redundant; instead, it amplifies it. Teams evolve from being process executors to strategic administrators, gaining deeper insights into their domains, nurturing a proactive approach to process improvement, and ultimately driving their organization towards a more agile and responsive future.
  3. The Path Ahead: For organizations contemplating a similar journey, Acme's story is both an inspiration and a blueprint. It underscores the importance of strategic planning, change management, and the willingness to adapt. As we look towards a future where digital transformation becomes increasingly pivotal, the question is no longer if organizations should embark on this journey, but how quickly and effectively they can adapt to these inevitable changes.

Automation, when strategically implemented, redefines roles and amplifies the human element in operations. As we embrace this era of digital transformation, let’s remember that it is not just about technology but the teams it empowers and the business outcomes it enables.