Automation and process standardization
– a strategic suggestion
von Arnold Kinzel
Consultant | Advisory
23/09/2020 | Frankfurt am Main
A general tendency in process management is the standardization across the organization. For this purpose, large organizations build sub-organizations such as shared service centers to force standard procedures and create more efficient ways of operating. While this can be a sensitive strategy, standardization, in many cases, overshoots the mark, as Business Consulting House Advisory Partner Georgios Charames examines:
Companies try to standardize their processes to a high degree in order to achieve high scalability. Processes, however, have deviations for good reasons. Departments must be able to react to all possible situations and be flexible. This agility is eliminated by too much standardization. With RPA, however, it is possible to simultaneously map and automate meaningful deviations and process exceptions in order to meet customer requirements. Because the customer should, more than ever, be in the foreground.
Thus, modern process management should go beyond pure process standardization and account for the opportunities contemporary technologies offer when building their strategy. A modern approach to process management would hence include automation independently of the organization’s progress in standardization. It remains to establish a general framework for process automation that companies can use in order to identify and prioritize processes as part of their strategy.
Everything can be expressed as a process
Usually one would think about a process as a sequence of activities important enough for the involved stakeholders to be visualized. Indeed, only the ‘sequence of activities’ is required for a concise definition of a process. A visualization is, strictly seen, not required. In fact, everything in the world can be thought of as a process. The expression ´thought process´ is not coincidental as it implies that an idea, in its core, is nothing but a flow of different individual thoughts working together to arrive at a particular outcome; the idea or solution.
Though it is rather difficult to identify all the components of something as complex as an idea or even the appearance of a single thought — and should be left to the neuroscientist — companies have it much easier to identify their respective procedures and processes. And while processes in nature do not need much modelling, organizations are not perfectly organic and must find a way to make procedures clear for e.g. new employees or, more general, their stakeholders.
Possibilities in process recording
From the above logic, everything in an organization that aims at achieving a specific target — which is ideally the case — should visually be modelled and recorded. However, when chasing a target outcome, activities sometimes settle in automatically. Very often, the visual process, including improvements, is being created afterwards.
Traditionally, companies gather the necessary stakeholders for a workshop mapping the process already in place (As-Is). Often, this is used to improve upon the existing procedure (To-Be). A second possibility is the so-called ‘work-shadowing’. As the name suggests, a reasonably unbiased person is shadowing and documenting another person’s work. The process can then be modelled or recorded in a Process Definition Document (PDD). Also, work-shadowing can be simulated by a process discovery tool with an integrated AI engine. The tool records human interaction with the computer during the workday and automatically creates a workflow visualization[FF1] from one’s computer surface. Based on these findings, RPA Analysts can then derive RPA solutions.
Summarizing, a process can be modelled traditionally using e.g. BPMN 2.0 as a language and special software e.g. Signavio or Visio as a visualization tool or it can be documented in such a way as to enable RPA automation directly. In many cases it makes sense to automate a process that has not reached its ‘To-Be’ status yet and freeing resources while vastly collecting the automation’s ROI. This demonstrates how technology can support process management by increasing efficiency without hampering agility.
A high-level prioritization roadmap for automation
In principle, processes can be classified within the dimensions complexity and benefits as shown in the matrix below. For two different processes with similar complexity, the process with the higher forecasted benefit is chosen. Benefits can be defined as resources saved or similarly time and amount of the project’s return on investment (ROI).
Intuitively, automating quick wins should be prioritized while long-term improvements will be neglected at first. After quick wins have been generated, processes classified as ‘low-hanging fruits’ and ‘must-do improvements’ are tackled. To prioritize between the latter two, a closer analysis of the processes’ respective ROIs would be required and a strategic combination between the two might be considered.
From this it is obvious that complex standardization projects might be inefficient for ‘quick win’-processes in a lot of instances and that long-term improvements might bring about higher benefits if standardized. One can conclude from this analysis that it is essential to automate processes with low complexity and, despite this, great benefits. Those processes are typically characterized by high-volumes and simplicity in their execution; mostly found in data management procedures such as billing (e.g. invoicing) or booking (e.g. any form importing master data).
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) offers a solution to the efficiency-agility dilemma and enables the latter while increasing the former. Thus, process automation is not just a productivity enhancement built upon an already well-established process infrastructure but rather offers more horizontal options, increasing the range of usable tools, for effective enablement of support and core processes.
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