How to choose the right approach for process automation success

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Peter Clarke

The constant stream of sensationalist headlines is leading many organisation to believe that process automation will lead to massive savings in very short timescales with little cost or effort. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening – we have a market were many adopters are, for the most part, confused and disappointed

Process automation
Image by Andrii Yalanskyi / Shutterstock

However, the good news is that real transformation benefits are possible by adopting the right approach with the right skill set. Here we consider how the combination of the latest automation technologies, together with process excellence techniques, and the necessary change management activities can press home the advantages of what really is a disruptive change.

In our experience this is the best way to deliver real business transformation and to deliver the sort of results that the headlines tell us.

Let’s take a quick look at the automation market. 

The last 5 years has seen the rapid progress of smart automation technologies which looks set to continue growing. Whichever research company report you look at - and we think Gartner, Forrester and HfS are the leaders in this area - they all forecast phenomenal growth and, to offer our own practical evidence, we are seeing an incredible take up and adoption of all aspects of automation globally.

One explanation is that over the last 40 years, organisations have continuously tried new ways to improve process efficiency and effectiveness: large scale technology, shared services and process re-engineering, and from the early 90’s outsourcing and offshoring then, most recently, process automation. The emergence of more intelligent and importantly, agile, process automation tools has created the latest change lever and consequently the expectations of senior management are extremely high.

The emergence of more intelligent and importantly, agile, process automation tools has created the latest change lever and consequently the expectations of senior management are extremely high

And it is understandable that expectations are high…..

….because the leading RPA, AI and other products are very good at what they do. These tools are low-cost, robust, proven, and agile. Applied effectively they can provide considerable business benefits with very short pay-back periods.

…. because many believe that automation is the new wave that will deliver the efficiencies, cost savings and overall business transformation that the other levers didn’t quite fulfil: and this belief has been fuelled by a small number of very impressive case studies. These have been repeatedly quoted by the industry press and everyone else is hoping to follow in their footsteps.

There is great demand for fast, agile transformative initiatives. There are very few effective levers that executives can pull to deliver transformation that have not already been tried. Those mentioned earlier are quite common now and all have their pros and cons.

Where automation is perceived to differ is that it is far easier, lower cost and faster to plan and execute.  As a result, take up has accelerated at an unprecedented rate.

And here is the paradox—the potential benefits from automation are truly exceptional and the market is exploding, but at the same time the industry analysts and our own observations tell us that relatively few organisations are experiencing real success.

We are told that the hype curve has now reached the valley of disillusion

We are told that the hype curve has now reached the valley of disillusion. The reality is that, among the thousands of adopters, there are still just a handful of companies whose process portfolios have been ideal for process automation; i.e. they have relatively up-to-date systems, they have a largely rules-based environment, they have structured and digital inputs and high concentrations of process personnel.  But this is not typical of most large organisations.

Another causal factor is that, despite the phenomenal growth, the automation industry is far from mature in terms of delivery. This is evidenced by the high failure rate of process automation programmes and the growing sense of disappointment as organisations discover reality is far from the expectations set by the market.

Read more: Support: The real success factor in automation projects

The disappointment has little to do with the automation technologies available and far more to do with how they are applied and the method and rigour with which automation is implemented.

Consequently, there is increasing emphasis on the cost of automation. If the business cases for automation projects are marginal, then cost rather than benefits become the major consideration, and if the focus is cost then the wrong side of the equation is being considered. This results in a drive towards tier 2 products and low cost, inexperienced, remote delivery resources applied at a tactical level. We believe this is the slippery slope to the bottom of that valley of disillusionment.

Instead, by focusing on ways to deliver transformational benefits, the costs of automation become trivial.

What are the underlying factors which have contributed to this situation?

Firstly, many organisations are not fortunate enough to have any digital, standard, rules-based processes. Systems are frequently old and fragile, and they rely heavily on unstructured and often, paper-based inputs. This means a combination of automation tools will be required, typically some kind of machine learning tool and RPA.

Secondly the market has outgrown its delivery capacity, so the levels of experience are very low, and this is a crucial element – we call this homeopathic automation.

Thirdly, expectations have been set very high the market and executive management expects transformational results in very short timescales – impatience causes a tactical process by process approach which very quickly exhausts opportunities.

Next, automation is a new industry, so buyers don’t yet know what or how to buy, who to buy from or why. We strongly advise not to see automation as a commodity. The software may one day become commoditised but not the associated services. 

Another key issue to consider is that process assessment is typically seen as the easy part of the program, but this is where the potential value is lost, and again, experience is crucial. Specialist help is required to work together with process and subject matter experts to identify the true automation potential.

We see many organisations where automation projects are ungoverned and not conducted in a standard way, leading to massively increased risk and cost. Good quality assurance is vital, and this requires a standard best practice approach, tried and tested in the field, and encapsulated in a commonly exercised methodology. Virtual Operations provides a 365 24/7 support service for our clients and we have observed that the vast majority of support incidents and so-called robot failures are actually due to low standardisation and poor governance.

Lastly, any automation programme will be disruptive and we can’t stress enough the importance of good project management and change management disciplines.

There are massive potential benefits to be gained, but the journey will be more complex and take longer to implement than anticipated

In summary, there are massive potential benefits to be gained, but the journey will be more complex and take longer to implement than anticipated. Unfortunately, the longer-term business case can be difficult to sell internally, and the message is not always well received.

Smart automation combines RPA with cognitive and workflow tools and requires careful planning to integrate these systems successfully. Technically and commercially this kind of integration can be quite challenging, and technology companies offering integrated automation products on a single platform are thriving and will continue to do so.

How does an organisation avoid getting into the valley of disillusionment and deliver real transformational change through automation?

Many of the answers can be found by addressing the points above, and below, we discuss some other experience-based observations from clients we have worked with.

It is essential to have clear objectives – it astonishes us how many organisations have started an automation program without identifying just what success looks like. It is vital that the business is clear on its corporate objectives as well as the key change drivers and how these objectives cascade into the automation program. For example, an objective to improve compliance should not be measured by a business case that is based on headcount saving. 

In some cases, these benefits are delivering huge ROI, but we still estimate that in over 90 per cent of all automation projects currently underway worldwide, tactical headcount reduction is nearly always the primary and often the only measure.

Read more: The path to successful automation: A C-suite guide

Other examples of key drivers for automation include compliance and regulator confidence, customer satisfaction and retention, competitive advantage, supply chain optimisation, resource augmentation, improved management information and analytics, launching new business lines, re-work elimination, location optimisation, repatriation of off-shore work, reducing /eliminating fraud, increasing cash-flow……. 

Targeting head count reduction is very limited when there are far greater rewards in moving away from the process-by-process approach and deploying automation at the cause of business problems—not at the symptoms

Cutting the people cost out of a business offers a quick win and provides confidence and momentum for further automation, but simply targeting head count reduction is very limited when there are far greater rewards in moving away from the process-by-process approach and deploying automation at the cause of business problems—not at the symptoms. For example, processes dealing with exceptions to orders are difficult to automate because, by definition, they are exceptions and so difficult to automate because of the number of variations. Much better to move upstream in the order life cycle and look to automate exception prevention in the first place.

Without clear and compelling business cases for every project and the automation program as a whole, any automation initiative is likely to fail. We have been asked to automate countless processes where there is almost no business case – we get large spread sheets full of projects with minimal gains that even in aggregate won’t add up to anything like a success.

Automation needs to be implemented in a consistent way using experienced-based best practice. At Virtual Operations, we use our VOLT methodology. This ensures that all our team, and our clients, use the best practice plans, tools and templates and all are following the same procedures. This massively reduces risk and costs, eliminates failure and facilitates QA. Supervisors can far more rapidly resolve issues if they understand how the process automations have been designed and built, and recognise the areas of non-compliance. All of this in turn leads to the ability to scale.  

Of all the work we do support is the least considered aspect of automation. We provide 365 24/7 support for thousands of automated processes and there can be many incidents every week that require immediate resolution. Organisations need to think about how they will support automated processes within days of starting their first automation project. It is extremely inefficient and expensive to deploy your developers to support and, as the mix of the support work is repetitive and routine, mixed with highly experienced technical, it is almost impossible to provide the right balance of resources in-house.

It is vital to think of automation as just one part of a transformation toolset rather than a stand-alone solution

Once these factors are considered it is then possible to consider more strategic automation: to solve business problems or realise transformational business goals by combining automation with broader disciplines such as process excellence or applying automation as one part of a broader digitisation objective. It is vital to think of automation as just one part of a transformation toolset rather than a stand-alone solution. The incremental growth of strategic automation was covered in a previous paper found here.

A key consideration is how to build and scale the solution across the organisation. Although most of the tools that we deal with are scalable, the real challenge with achieving rapid scale is building a competent team not just in assessment and development but in all areas such as process excellence, governance and process support

For organisations that outsource these services to a partner to get scale, they will find that the service providers themselves are also under-resourced and are deploying inexperienced resources with little or no mentoring or supervision. This is a major reason why the automation industry is failing to deliver in so many cases. One client of ours recently commented that their service provider was probably only half a page ahead of them in the RPA manual. The approach we recommend is to build leveraged ‘joint agility teams’ where clients own people are trained and mentored by a recognised and specialist automation services provider until they become self-sufficient.

Back to the paradox - the potentially high benefits from a rapidly evolving automation market are being achieved by only a few organisations. How can that situation be improved? Described above are a number of key factors that can drive up the success rate and remove some of the uncertainty that currently exists. Ensure that automation plays a key role in delivering overall corporate objectives; that the business case to support these objectives is relevant and realistic; that the right type or mix of automation technology is deployed; and bring together all the elements described above with the help of process experts and truly experienced automation specialists.