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Is Process Automation The Answer?

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Is Process Automation The Answer?

Improve Your Business Processes Before Automating Them

Process Improvement Methods

I engage in exploratory meetings with many potential clients about improving their processes and many of them ask why do they need my expertise when they can just automate their current processes. My response is, yes there are many automation technologies available but the match between these technologies and business processes isn’t perfect and if your goal is to redesign or improve the process rather than automate the current state then automation isn’t the answer.

The available automation technologies do not redesign anything they usually operate at the task level and not the end-to-end process level.

Why Automation Needs Process Analysis

There are several reasons why process mapping/value stream mapping, analysis and process redesign are essential to an effective process automation implementation.

  • The existing process is full of complexities and replete with unnecessary non-value-added steps (waste)
  • Automation involves systematizing business rules, but in many cases, business rules haven’t been examined for many years and don’t make sense in the current environment.
  • In many organizations no one is responsible for the process, an owner and the level of process knowledge is very low or non-existent.
  • The company’s standard operating procedures are poorly documented and outdated.
  • Each employee typically follows their understanding of best practices. In other words, there is no standard work.

Taking the time to redesign the current state process by eliminating waste, a process enabled by automation can become more efficient and effective than a process that is automated but otherwise unchanged. Sure, redesigning processes while implementing automation technology can increase the time and cost of the overall initiative, but the return on investment can be greater than automation implementations with no process changes. Let’s review some process improvement concepts to help you understand why redesign of processes may be a necessary evil before automation.

Key Process Improvement Concepts

Processes and Systems

There is a tendency to think of your organization as a place where countless tasks get done: putting labels on envelopes, stamping letters, testing batches, calling customers, and on and on. Process improvement challenges us to look at these tasks in a different light, to think of them as a steps in a process. Precisely how did the stamp get on the envelope? Where did the envelope come from and how did it get there?

We can define a process by grouping in sequence all the tasks directed at accomplishing one particular outcome. Examples are the steps in producing a product, hiring or training a new employee, or entering an order. Based on this definition, we begin to see that every activity is part of a process, and there are many, many processes, you can only improve your business by improving processes.

A group of related processes is defined as a system. Selling your product or service, for example, is a system that involves many interrelated processes.

Customers and Suppliers

The concept of customers and suppliers is readily apparent once you understand the process concept. The people or organizations who precede the series of tasks you identify as a process are suppliers, and those who follow, who use the product or service are customers. These definitions include both internal and external customers and suppliers.

Process Complexity

The root causes of a problem are sometimes mired deeply in the procedures and processes used to create a product or service. But even when the original source is hidden, you can usually find the non-value added activities that were generated in compensating for the problem. These non-value-added activities are complexities – anything that makes a process more complicated without adding value to the product or service.

Typically, complexity arises when people repeatedly try to improve a process without any systematic plan. They try to solve one piece by adding or rearranging steps, without realizing that they are distorting other parts of the process. As the problems resulting from the distortion start to surface, more and more steps are added to compensate. Almost all your processes include work that would not be necessary (workarounds) if systems worked flawlessly.

Four Types of Complexity

When defects occur in products or services, or someone makes a mistake, work has to be repeated and extra steps added to correct the error or dispose of the damage. These steps are considered complexity because they add no value to the product or service.

When defects occur in products or services, or someone makes a mistake, work has to be repeated and extra steps added to correct the error or dispose of the damage. These steps are considered complexity because they add no value to the product or service.

Supply or production systems break down, and real work is put on hold and replaced with repair or waiting – and eventually rework.

The use of more material, time, and movement than absolutely necessary. Often inefficiency arose because something happened that upset the system, and the effects remained long after the problem disappear


  • Common causes of variation
    Typically, due to a large number of small sources of variation. It is the sum of the common causes that determine the inherent variation of the process and thus determines its limits and its capability in the current state. If you react to common cause variation as if it were due to special causes, you will only make matters worse and increase the variation, defects, and mistakes.
  • Special causes of variation
    Special causes of variation are not part of the process all the time. They arise because of specific circumstances.

Now with a better understanding of process improvement you can understand  why it is important to fix the current state before you layer automation over a broken process.

It is certainly true that automation may yield substantial savings without detailed analysis of your processes. However, automation coupled with process redesign process can bring a much higher level of performance and value. Keep in mind process improvement or innovation is a much more valuable tool than simple task automation.

Here is some additional information on process automation you may find interesting:

Process Automation: all you need to know

Pros And Cons of Business Process Automation: Is It Worth It?

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