Lean and process management support automation success.


Automation using robotic process automation (RPA) technologies will probably be one of the most transformational events ever to happen in service environments.

Like any industry-transforming technology, there are significant risks for early adopters who could get caught in the hype with poor ROI unless they focus on process basics before they automate

RPA vendors are maturing their approach to process excellence, but there still remains strong market pressure to automate without having a complete understanding of the process and the organizational context of the improvement.

Here are 4 ways organizations can prepare for their RPA activities:

1. RPA should align with your business strategy

RPA should be done to enable a clear business strategy. There are many different approaches to strategy, and Porter’s three generic strategies endures as an excellent starting point.

The three strategies, broadly speaking, are cost management, differentiation and focus. Effectively you can lead the market by being cheap or you can lead the market by being different. Market leadership is either broad (all market segments) or it is focussed on specific segments of the market with unusual needs.

The most common ways RPA can enable one of the three generic strategies is by performing the process more economically (i.e. less resources and less defects) or doing the process differently in a way that delights customers and differentiates from competitors (i.e. unique customer service, faster response times, less defects.)

In a perfect world, the decision to automate would be an outcome out of a strategic plan (like the Hoshin Kanri Lean strategic planning methodology.) However, the need to automate is often arrived at from much more tactical planning activities.

While this isn’t ideal, it’s the reality of the speed with which automation is being adopted. As such, all RPA investments should be compared, tested and adopted on the basis of top level alignment to strategy.

If your RPA investment doesn’t clearly support a defined business strategy don’t do it.

A robust approach to process management provides a good framework for identifying strategic alignment because it gives visibility of the end-to-end process operating model, it provides visibility to which processes are impacting which market segments, and it’s updateable in real time so there’s always an up-to-date view.

2. Start with a process map

Once the strategic alignment is identified the process that’s a candidate for automation will need further definition, baselining and improvement.

If you have a process map you have the start of standard work. Standard work is about ensuring that work is done in a consistent and repeatable manner. Before embarking on an RPA implementation, you must ensure that the process map is genuinely representative of what’s happening right now and not just a theoretical or legacy view.

Work with your team and create a process map that everyone agrees captures the work they’re actually doing.

Process mapping tools such as Nintex Promapp are ideal to create, communicate and visually represent standard work in a format that is accessible to all. Nintex Promapp also has the advantage that it is updated in real time by process owners, so changes can be viewed by end users immediately.

Standard work forms the baseline for the Lean tools that should be used before embarking on an RPA implementation. 

3. Use Lean to identify improvement opportunities

Lean is a systematic process improvement methodology that increases value, as defined by the customer, by eliminating waste. Lean was originally developed from the Toyota Production System which is why there’s a lot of Japanese words in the Lean lexicon.

Lean means a lot of things to different types of practitioners, and some Lean purists would argue that true Lean requires an organizational-wide effort to get value from this methodology. However, the reality is that any organization can get immediate results from applying simple Lean concepts to processes.

The available number of Lean tools and concepts can initially be overwhelming. The best place to start is Value Stream Mapping and use it to remove waste (Muda), reduce unevenness (Mura), improve flow and quantify the cycle time/Takt time. These are all improvements that will have a lasting and sustainable impact on the process performance and support decision making about automation.

A Lean Kaizen event is an ideal way to run through these basic Lean concepts and evaluate whether your processes are suitable for automation. Kaizen means ‘change for the better’ and Kaizen events are short intensive workshops to improve a specific process or solve a specific business issue. Nintex Promapp is an excellent tool for Kaizen events because it supports Lean tagging, and the results from changes can be visually displayed, simulated and ROI quantified immediately.

4. Minimize defects

Defects are anything that doesn’t meet a customer-defined specification. Defects are one of the seven wastes and it is likely that the cost of defects in your process is significantly higher than you realize.

Defects annoy customers, cause re-work, increase customer service costs and expose the organization to regulatory risks if the process is dealing with regulated activities such as contracts. Understanding defects and developing a strategy to reduce them is critical before automation. If the process is working to flawed business rules and flawed data, the robot will just inherit these rules and create more defects.

Defects need to be identified and tagged with information about the type and volume of defects. Once data is gathered on defect rates, a targeted effort can be started to reduce defects. Often the fixes are simple, standardizing forms, getting rid of paper documents and standardizing the type of data being transacted. More complex defects may require the application of specialist techniques. Six Sigma is an excellent methodology to reduce defects in a well-defined, stable process.

Bring it all together.

Identify the strategic alignment of the process and do basic, but fundamental improvements. This will put you in a much better position to determine which parts of the process to automate, what the data requirements are, what the business rules are, and enable you to calculate the ROI from the RPA implementation.

Finally, some people are afraid automation will take their jobs. It’s important to have honest discussions with your workforce about the intent of what you’re doing and the possible impacts on them, before you go down the path of changing how processes work and looking at automation options that you have.

A strong change management approach will not only give people clarity about what’s happening it’ll also get people positively involved.

Guest blogger bio.


Patrick Bradley has over 20 years’ experience in large-scale technology-driven business transformation, and is the process and RPA practice manager for Thrive Plus, a Nintex Promapp partner.

Patrick is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence program, and has extensive experience in IT governance and IT investment management.

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