June 20, 2019
Don’t choose a product before you understand the process
As I sat down this morning sipping my coffee, I gave my LinkedIn feed its usual skim to see if anything grabbed my attention and a particular blog did, although it was probably for the wrong reason. I confess that my mind wasn’t focused on the task as I was already starting to think ahead to the tasks of the day once the sun was up and the kids were at school, so I initially scrolled past it. But something about it poked at my lizard brain and sent me searching for it again.
The blog was titled “How to identify Robotic Process Automation (RPA) opportunities” and it instinctively irked me. Reading it through several times, I admit that some of the points it made were positive. It mentioned some use cases where RPA could deliver value and it also looked at task categorisation for things that RPA is particularly good at improving. All these things were valid points and for the most part I agree with them.
However, my problem with it was that the tone and approach of the blog was completely backwards. It was written as a vendor’s sales pitch for the latest shiny new thing for early adopters to add to their collection of cool stuff. Starting with a premise of, ‘here is a new thing, let me tell you how to justify buying it’, it reeked of the Vendor Push selling model that Graham Hawkins of SalesTribe wrote about last year, as a selling model that will be dead in 3 years. That approach to RPA, or indeed to Business Process Automation (BPA) in general, is unequivocally just wrong. Technology can be a catalyst for change, but change should always be based on business benefits and not on product features.
Any BPA project starts with a process. Whether it is existing or new, typically it is a process that is mired with manual steps and repetition. Often it is a process that also lacks efficiency, speed, or visibility. Understanding the process is key to the success of the whole project, and that understanding does not come from starting with a technology or product and trying to see how it fits. It comes from understanding your business processes intimately. Not just as a sequence of events in a workflow, but from a deeper recognition of WHY your processes are structured the way they are and what they are designed to achieve.
With that in mind, here are three quick ways to identify business processes that could benefit from a review, regardless of the product, vendor, or technology type that is ultimately used to achieve the project goals.
Whether it’s taking orders, paying vendors, onboarding staff, collecting information, enrolling patients or students, or even moving stuff from A to B, there is a lot of administrative paperwork involved in almost every business. That means all manner of ERP’s – from HR databases through to CRM’s – will need to be updated with new information. Whether that information comes contained within a document, or whether it originates from another system, there are ways to automate that data extraction and integration without relying on people wearing out keyboards. Human data entry is time consuming and susceptible to mis-keying and errors. Consider the opportunity cost of other valuable business tasks those team members could be performing instead of pounding a keyboard.
Data-entry isn’t always document centric. Sometimes it’s about the double handling of data to ensure it gets into the various systems that need it, or it could even be keying information from one system to another. You might have more than one CRM for different divisions within your organisation. Or maybe your inventory & POS system is separate from your Finance system. Perhaps your asset register and contract management systems are updated manually once an AP invoice has been receipted and paid. Whatever the specifics of your workflow, if you have staff keying information from one system into another system, then you need to ask why that is happening. Once you understand the why of it, then you can start looking at the right way to solve the problem.
Does your end of month process seem like a frantic semi-controlled chaos that seems to eat all the hours in a working day? If so, ask yourself why. Is it because of a routing issue whereby documents sit on someone’s desk until the pile gets large enough for them get around to it? Is it because your staff are mired in other manual tasks throughout the month, forcing essential tasks to take a backseat until they become urgent? Maybe it is because of scheduling whereby some of the key staff are only onsite or in the office at certain times, or perhaps they are even on leave? Whatever the reason, unreasonable peaks and troughs in administrative workload could be a symptom that your processes need to be re-evaluated.
Understanding why it is happening is more important than starting with any particular product or technology platform to try and ease these symptoms. Because all that would do is put a Band-Aid over the problem rather than treating the cause of the problem.
The Paper Shuffle
Physically moving paper around an office, or worse between offices, creates problems around visibility. Pause for a moment and think about the things you’ve recently been working on. It could be a contract, an order, an application, an authorization request, a shipping / distribution process, a product build, an invoice approval, a PO request, an HR background check, or even preparing a sales report. Picture that process in your mind and think about the documents that underpin the process. Think about the escalation possibilities. Think about the timings, the various parties involved, and of course think about how you will know when it’s completed as well as when (if?) the document will make its way back to you. Once you have that picture in your mind, ask these two questions: “What is that status of document right now?” and “Who currently has it?”. If your first instinct is to check your email or to pick up the phone to ask someone, that is sign that your business process may need to be reviewed because it demonstrates that your process lacks visibility. If documents are bouncing from desk to desk as they collect the necessary comments, signatures, coding, and feedback, then you need to ask why.
If you take nothing else away from this blog, let it be this: Don’t start a BPA project by trying to fit a product into your business. Instead, invest some time into understanding the reasons behind your processes and challenge the assumptions around why things are done that particular way. If you don’t have the time in invest in that kind of review, then perhaps that in of itself is symptom of a larger issue…?
Once you understand the details behind both the WHAT and WHY, find a trusted advisor that shares your vision, understands your challenges, and can offer fresh innovative ways to achieve your goals. In short, give me a call.
Solution Sales Executive