Businesses are investing in automation as they want to hit that ROI target. However, there’s an often-missed step prior to automation. Today, we’re going to look at why you should be looking at improving business processes before automating them.
Improvement vs automation
In our experience, every business has inefficient processes that are baked into how they do things. Improving business processes usually focuses on finding, identifying, and fixing these inefficient processes. Automation is when you take your business process and design out human involvement.
For instance, if a company is getting a person to manually send out invoices, they might get some accounting, payment, or ERP software to do that for them.
Automation and business process improvement can (and often do!) dovetail. But we think that the focus should be on business improvement first.
Why business improvement matters
The most significant factor here is that if you lead with automation, then you might end up automating the wrong thing. For instance, if a process has 20 steps, you could automate that … or redesign it so it’s only 10 steps.
Now, when you go to automate that process later, it’s going to be a much easier and simpler job.
What’s more, a business process can be formal or informal.
Formal processes lend themselves to automation because there are predefined and widely-understood rules about what happens when, and to whom.
Informal processes are really just how an organization does business. And these are much more challenging to automate. They’re often undocumented and usually rely on the people (sometimes specific people!) in the roles to be completed.
Informal processes are often poorly understood, and significant task in improving processes is simply understanding and mapping the existing process landscape.
And it’s very difficult to automate something that’s poorly articulated or even understood. That’s why first mapping, understanding, and improving your business processes before you automate them is key. Otherwise, you’ll end up missing dysfunctional systems rip for improvement — just because you don’t know they’re there.
Automation is a tool
Automation is fundamentally a tool rather than a strategy. Looking at your process and automating before you consider what improvements you make it akin to buying a frame for a house before you’ve talked to an architect.
You must have something to automate before you get to the automation step. And if you automate the wrong thing, you’ll accelerate inefficiency rather than eliminate it, creating a complicated mess that is time-consuming and arduous to untangle.
Automation can be expensive
Depending on the complexity and intricacy of your business, building a robust automation engine might cause significant problems and be seriously expensive.
Automation might involve:
Integrating multiple generations of technology
Building or establishing centralized data repositories
Migrating disparate systems into fewer, more centralized ones.
None of these jobs are fast, easy, or cheap. And they’re definitely not tasks you want to take on more than once.
Especially if you work with secure or sensitive data, like financial, health, or product data, automation usually throws all sorts of spanners in your security works.
You can untangle it, and it does pay off in the long run, but when it comes to business processes, there’s lower-hanging fruit in process mapping and improving.
So what’s to be done? We think process, then automation. Take the time to understand what your business process is, and then take time to work with stakeholders and end-users to really look where you can gain efficiencies.
Looking at informal processes that are not scalable, reviewing steps to see if some can be designed out, or looking at approvers and commenters and seeing if some of those can be taken off certain processes can work wonders.
Once you have your process humming, it’s time to look to automation to really drive ROI and business efficiency, and keep workers focused on high-value and creative tasks.
Once you build the system, getting the machines to do the heavy lifting gets a lot easier.