When considering RPA and AI to automate your business processes it may be tempting to get caught up in the spontaneity and excitement of the journey and skip the planning phase. Smart, effective RPA solutions require that you first engage in proper pre-planning and pre-work to avoid chaos and deliver optimum outcomes. This article examines two core areas of pre-work all businesses need to know to achieve a successful automation project.
My wife and I sometimes fantasize about taking the spontaneous approach to travel. We would show up at the airport, bags packed, and jump on the next flight to a warm destination. But we've never actually done this – and I don't know anyone who has. I mean, what if the tickets are too expensive? What if we can't get a hotel? And what if my wife didn't pack the right shoes?
The same holds true when embarking on a mission to automate business processes using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Intelligent Automation (IA). RPA is software that emulates human keystrokes and mouse-clicks in order to automate rote tasks. IA takes RPA a step further by utilizing Machine Learning and Artificial intelligence to make cognitive decisions without requiring explicit rules to be hard-coded.
As with most fantasies, it is easy to get swept up in the desire to deploy a fully automated solution to production in a few weeks, unbeknownst to us that plunging in with this approach may lead us down the path to diminished returns. The unplanned and spontaneous trip can sometimes turn out amazing - just be prepared to endure the chaos, sacrifice time that could otherwise be spent at the beach and expect to pay more for the experience.
Here are the top two key areas you should explore as pre-work ahead of starting to automate a process using RPA and IA.
RPA and IA work best when all, or a majority, of your transactions follow a standard. If your process outcome is specific to each of your customers, whether it be the format or the content itself, you may need to first standardize the process before embarking on your RPA journey. Additionally, if the same inputs result in different outcomes - perhaps employees handle transactions differently or there are regional differences - there may be a need to standardize the process in order to get the most out of your automation efforts. Otherwise, you will inevitably write rules-based logic or train Machine Learning models that are specific to each of your customers or regions; an effort that can be time consuming and expensive.
Requiring a standard doesn't only apply to outputs. If the inputs to your process vary widely, consider standardizing the format and content of your inputs in order to maximize your automation benefit. For example, if you are processing medical records or financial statements, the format of your inputs may be vastly different. Your process may currently accept any format - Word documents, PDFs, faxes, free-form sentence structure, spreadsheets, structured data from a database - and the effort to automate may outweigh the benefits as you attempt to use Machine Learning or rules-based logic to process anything and everything.
If your process can't be standardized any further, look at parts of the process to automate. It may be the case that automation makes sense for some tasks but not others.
Variations and exceptions
Process variation can also challenge your automation efforts. If you were to map your process, how many distinct paths, or distinct sets of tasks, are required to produce the outcome? For example, if you are processing medical claims, urgent, life-threatening claims may follow a different path than non-urgent claims. If the majority of your transactions travel down more than two or three process pathways, you may need to examine your process for efficiencies that can be gained by reducing the variations. Continuing with the medical claims example, automation may accelerate the process to the point where urgent and non-urgent claims can be processed using the same process path.
Generally speaking, the more variations in your process, the more effort will be required to automate. Ideally, a single pathway through your process will produce the greatest ROI.
Spontaneity is exhilarating. With this approach to travel, perhaps the flights are reasonable, hotels are available and you've packed all the right things. And with automation, sometimes your process is already standardized, with few variations, and the results are easier to attain. However, in the vast majority of the cases, up-front planning and improvements are necessary to maximize benefits.
The next time you want to take the spontaneous approach to RPA and Intelligent Automation, with the right amount of planning and improvements, think about how much better and less expensive your vacation can be. Here are a few questions to consider as you identify processes within your organization to automate:
- Is the process repeatable (the same inputs will result in the same outputs)?
- Do process outcomes follow a standard format? Or, are there specific custom needs for customers or regions?
- Do process inputs follow a standard? Or, does anything and everything qualify as an input?
Organizational leaders who understand their processes and plan their automation will net the best results from their RPA and IA programs.