Automating your Business

Companies usually look to automation when they encounter an issue.  It’s also really easy to focus on one specific issue in your business, because it usually causes stress on employees, managers, teams and on the bottom line.  Fixing that issue, even with automation, can be a bandaid until the next issue appears.   But imagine what could be saved, if you looked at this, not from a myopic view of fixing one issue, but instead, looking at a bigger picture, and getting a better understanding of your business, and how automation fits into all of it.

Of course there are plentty of questions to ask.  What automation tool is the best for this type of process, or that type of process?  The ability to understand those questions and to come up with the right answers, comes with understanding your processes.  Diving head first into an automation tool, without understanding your processes, again, will only fix very specific issues and potentially result in you having the same issues in other processes later on.

Let’s talk about that bigger picture.  About what steps should be taken to improve the whole busines, because that’s really what automation is for.

Firstly, the best person to drive this initiative, is the CIO (Chief Information Officer).  Given that the CIO has a focus on growth of the business and making sure the technical systems and the procedures around them help the business achieve their growth goals, they are in the ideal position to initiate automation as a key part of successful growth.  

Secondly, the CIO can help get buy in from the different departments.  Why is that important?  Each department has it’s own processes, and it’s own issues that automation can help.  But it’s unlikely that one tool will help every department.  

How to make a start?

It’s important to understand your business, before you allocate resources to new projects.  Starting to automate a process before fully understanding it, will add countless hours of work, designing and refining your automated processes. I’d suggest that a best practice, is to get each department to start documenting their processes.  What is it that they do, that helps the business achieve their goals?  Understanding these processes, will help you put together a plan of which processes can be fully automated, which can be partially automated and which need to stay manual.  It will also help with identifying the automation needs, so that the right rools can be chosen for the right job.

Idea : Make it a competition.  Have subject matter experts in each department start documenting their processes. Set a deadline (2-4 weeks).  Make sure there are prizes. 

Don’t do prizes for an individual.  Have prizes for a department.  eg. a day out for the department.  There are 3 things you are trying to achieve here.

1. Gather up detailed descriptions of processes across the company
2. Instill a best practice of documenting processes, including new ones
3. Build on team bonding

I’ll have a post about how best to document your processes soon.  For now, you should think about the concepts and really consider how important it is, to know about your processes and how they impact the business.  Remember, that understanding what a process does is not enough.  You need to know who needs to participate in that process, and how much time it takes in order to complete that process.  Only then, will you truly understand the impact a process has and be able to look for deficiencies and ways that automation can help decrease the time of these process, and decrease the time spent by your employees.

How to choose the process to automate?

I’ve heard this question a lot.  You’ve documented a bunch of processes, but how do you choose the process that you should start with?

It’s hard to answer this question, but I can make some recommendations.

  • Why start with one?  Why not start with one in each department? Since all your departments have gone through the process of documenting some of their processes, each department has a lot of options.
  • How do you pick the one process in each department?  Your first instinct will be to find the big hairy process that is just annoying a lot of people.  That might not be the best way to start.  Jumping into a complex process is rife with potential road blocks and issues.  Instead, look at smaller processes, that have less people involved, but get executed often.  These processes, simply due to the number of times they get executed, can have a major impact on the business.

What to use to automate the process?

Remember, that there are some processes you can automate fully, some partially, and some not at all.  But you need to take a step back and determine not only what you can automate, but how.

If you are using a SAAS or online system, there’s most likely API’s that it exposes.  What that means, is that there are workflow tools out there, that probably already can talk to it, or can easily be configured to talk to it.

If you’re using a desktop tool, it’s less likely that a workflow tool will be able to communicate with it. In this case, you”re probably looking at Robotic Process Automation (RPA).  That is essentially, a bot that runs on the desktop, that takes over the mouse and keyboard actions, and mimics a human at the computer.  Have you seen the acronym, PEBKAC?  It means – Problem exists between keyboard and chair.  RPA is here to minimize that problem.  

If none of the above can solve the problem, then you’re probably looks at some bespoke systems that were built for your business.   RPA would most likely be able to help, but if not, you may be looking at a custom developed solution.  Idealy, if you have the source code, then I’d recommend building a Web or REST service that an RPA tool can hook into.

How do I start automating the chosen process?

Whether you’re building a workflow, a bot, or writing code, one of the best ways to start automating, is to break the process up into logic steps and build a prototype first.  Don’t worry about reading or writing data from other systems, or building forms for people to fill in.  You want to build something quick to prove that things work.  Once you’ve done that, then you can start filling in the gaps.  As you build more and more, the entire part of your automated process will come into view.

There’s a few other things to consider when automating a process.  Humans have a great ability to adapt to change.  Software, generally doesn’t.  Consider some of the possibliities of things happening that are out of the ordinary.  I’ll provide a few examples:

  • A user doesn’t fill in a form correctly, and data that is expected to be there, isn’t there when the workflow runs
  • A user fills in the forms, but not in the correct format. eg. not a valid email address
  • A system you are trying to talk to, CRM, Database etc, is down
  • You are reading data from a webpage, but the page layout has changed
  • You assign a task to a manager, but they don’t respond

Those are just a few things to think about. You’ll find more, as you build more and more automation solutions.

How do you know when you’ve automated enough?

There a things you need to consider, when it comes to understanding your processes that run your business, and automating some of those processes.  Firstly, once you document you processes, it doesn’t end there.  Processes change over time, and as you document them, you’ll find inefficiencies and therefore, adjust those processes.

The same goes for automation.  Once you build out a workflow, bot or app, through experience, you’ll find better ways to do things.  You’ll also find better ways of running your business, which will result in you modifying your automation solutions to reflect those changes.

So how do you know when you’ve automated enough?  Automating your business should be a continuous endeavour. You should always be thinking of ways to run your business more efficiently.  

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