The pressure to drive down costs and time-to-delivery has been a constant throughout much of our business lives. In an environment where international competitors have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by new technologies and the global economy, this has become especially critical. These competitors have won market share by attacking cost and delivery issues, and they are meeting quality lags with marked improvements. Firms that have not invested in streamlining their operations and improving efficiency have typically shrunk in size or disappeared from the landscape altogether.
The Automation Trap
Successful organizations are re-engineering and retooling business processes across all facets of their operations to match or beat today’s already competitive prices and delivery times. There are a myriad of tools—both equipment and software—that offer big savings in time and money for automating operations.
But Peter Drucker, perhaps the most avid student of business processes, warns that automation alone is not enough. According to Drucker, "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." Drucker tells organizations that they need to look at business processes holistically to avoid falling into the automation trap, which is automating a wasteful operation. If you improve the operation but not the process, you’ll potentially miss a cheaper and more elegant solution, and/or face resistance from employees who perceive change as a move to eliminate their positions.
The best way to ensure successful process automation is to begin by designing the future state for each process without regard for current constraints—say, shortening turnaround time from days to minutes. Once that future state has been described, relevant constraints (such as legal protocols) can be reintroduced and addressed. Done properly, the benefits of process automation can be substantial.
Re-Engineering Best Practices
Regardless of your organizational function, the key factors involved with successfully automating a process require practice and experience. Market leaders with both have identified a series of best practices that help ensure the success of any major process re-engineering initiative.
- Start simple. The initial project should not focus on your most important, mission‐critical business process. Instead, start with easier processes and then leverage what you have learned as you expand to more complex areas of your business.
- Involve the stakeholders and get their buy-in up front. The biggest challenge with deploying new technology in an organization is that people feel threatened by change. It’s easier to get buy‐in and create goodwill if you engage business unit leaders from the start. Help them to understand how the change will benefit them and the organization as a whole.
- Document the “as is” process before diving into the desired state. By documenting the current state, you can capture gaps, inefficiencies, and pain points. This will clarify what needs to be fixed to achieve the desired state.
- Succinctly define the desired state. Define the desired state using well-defined metrics, including quality, cost, and turn-around-time improvements.
- Calculate the return on investment with each new automated process. In today’s business climate, a new technology purchase must have demonstrable ROI. If you have done a good job at identifying the current and desired states, ROI is generally easy to prove.
As demand increases for businesses to perform complex, labor-intensive tasks, the goal is to automate as many manual processes as possible. This need encompasses all organizational functions, from manufacturing to marketing to the mailroom. There are a number of key advantages in process automation:
- Quality and consistency. Consistently delivering high-quality products and services results in happier and more loyal customers. Automation ensures that every action is performed consistently, which generates better results.
- Time. Every time a human being touches something, money is lost. Automation reduces the number of tasks that employees perform manually. This enables employees to focus on more innovative activities that can add more value to your business.
- Metrics for measuring success. Performance metrics are a key result of automation. Holding on to your competitive advantage requires access to timely and accurate business data.
- Operational efficiency. Efficiency describes the extent to which time, effort, and cost are effectively applied to the intended task or purpose. Very simply, automation decreases the time that it takes to produce more, resulting in improved profitability and bottom-line results. In addition to allowing systems to run efficiently, automation eliminates errors and ensures that best practices are constantly leveraged.
It Starts With Vision
Automation involves more than acquiring a piece of equipment or a software automation tool. Leaders must have a clear vision of what they hope to achieve, good planning skills, and open communication to embark on a path of continual improvement. By identifying the right starting point, embracing technology, engaging employees, and measuring results, you can bring your organization to levels of efficiency that you never thought possible!