Houses built on quicksand: AI & RPA without solid processes at the core.

Technology in business cannot replace sound methodology, empowered staff and a culture focused on continuous process improvement.

The thing about a buzz word is that it encourages people to get in on the action. And when we’re not in the thick of things, we start to feel like we’re missing out.

Take artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, for example. At the recent OPEX Week Australia 2017 in Sydney, thought leaders and process experts looked at how digital technology disruption and AI can lead to innovation and improved return on investment (ROI).

The calibre of the speakers was excellent, with people like the global director of Lean from Nike being one of them. The content was exciting, but what struck me was that we may be too quick to discount solid, foundational business practices, like process improvement, in our hurry to adopt AI and automation. 

A stable house needs a solid foundation, and businesses are no different. As much as we should embrace and maximise technology in business, it won’t make up for a weak foundation. New technology isn’t a silver bullet that can replace sound methodology, empowered staff and a culture focussed on continuous improvement

In short, automation and artificial intelligence will only be powerful if they’re working with a strong process foundation.

We still need to get the basics right… and most companies aren’t.

I spent a year in London setting up Promapp’s new UK office, and I was surprised at how many large global businesses are still operating with undefined, unrefined, inconsistent processes. They’re still working from paper manuals or Visio diagrams, allowing teams to invent or evolve their own way of doing things, using (or not using!) outdated processes. 

Of course, the result is inefficiency – people are doing things the long way around, wasting time, and creating conflict as departments and teams work with unaligned process. Meanwhile, disappointed customers experience inconsistent service or are given incorrect information. 

There seems to be a lot of focus on the roles of continuous improvement methodologies and technology. As a lean practitioner, I fully appreciate the benefits of approaches such as Lean, Six Sigma and Kaizen. But I can also vouch for the fact that people and processes need to be the foundation of continuous improvement efforts if they are to add real value to your business.

AI, automation and any other new technological application that comes along won’t solve foundational process issues. What’s needed is a focus on the fundamentals. Because even within an automated system there are still things that can go wrong, and things that could be improved. Your BPM approach should give power to your people, not be all about the technology.  

PEX guest speaker Gaurang Joshi from Senex Energy talked about just that. An oil and gas exploration and production company, Senex has been operating for more than 30 years and has around 165 employees. Their challenges included not having a single point of truth, software that wasn’t flexible, and poor-quality processes overall. 

The solution was a business transformation project, which helped employees change the way they worked together. Gaurang says the result was better clarity, consistency and streamlining, improved accountability, less duplication and rework, and quicker decision-making. There were intangible benefits too: a team that felt empowered was motivated to work together and had a greater understanding of the business. All this made the Senex team more innovative and creative. 

Software helped with this, but what really made the difference was getting the basics right. Process improvement is now embedded into their company and is supported by their leadership teams. It means this project wasn’t a one-off, but will be an ongoing focus to improve their business. 

There is, of course, a time and a place for the innovation that exciting new technology can bring.

Here’s my list of 3 things all companies need to do first:

1. Create quality processes that are worth automating

This is obvious, but something many companies still haven’t gotten right. They continue to work with inherited or undefined processes – bloated, inconsistent and complicated, they stick around because 'that’s how things have always been done'.

Process mapping isn’t just a functional exercise. If done right, it can transform and improve the business.  It should create the opportunity to always ask, 'How can we be doing things better?'

It may begin with a one-off project to map and refine existing processes using Lean or Six Sigma methodologies. Whatever the approach, it should involve people from all levels – buy-in from senior management is critical, but so is the working knowledge that only comes from teams at the coalface. 

2. Remember that processes are nothing without people

At their heart processes are about people, or at least they should be. Having processes captured is almost pointless unless they’re in a format your people can access, follow and update simply and easily.

It’s part of why paper process documents and Visio diagrams are so ineffective – no one reads them.

That was something I saw prior to joining Promapp. In my previous role as a business analyst, we thought we had a standardised approach, but our Visio maps were all self-created and way too complex

We needed something far simpler.

3. Empower teams to continually improve your processes

Getting people to follow processes and identify opportunities for improvement is the real goal. Empower teams to keep looking for ways to eliminate waste. That’s the best way to bring methodologies out of a project timeline and embedding them in everyday operations where they can deliver the most business benefit. 

That’s what we call an improvement culture – knowing that process maps will never really be final, that they’re ever-evolving and should be constantly challenged. 

The human element is key – empower those working at the front line to spot waste in their own processes, and make it easy for them to suggest and implement process improvement. 

People help create lasting foundations.

Yes, it’s fun and inspiring to be part of a house-building project, but not when it’s built on quicksand. 

In the same way, digitally disruptive tech like AI and automation are exciting, but we shouldn’t let the hype distract us from what really determines process management success or failure –  people. It’s people who create, use and improve processes.  It’s people who need to be engaged and empowered.

Without engaged and empowered teams your BPM efforts will sink, so that’s where you should start. 

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