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Automation and Process Improvement

March 9, 2023


One conviction shared by both business leaders and environmentalists is that waste and inefficiency are bad. Time is one of the worst things companies can waste. Best-selling author Harvey Mackay once stated, “Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.”[1] Mackay is correct. Time has been called a “life currency” that you can spend; however, you can never get a refund once it has been spent. Glenn L. Friedman, CEO of the accounting group Prager Metis, observes, “You have to use the time you have when you have it. It’s the most precious commodity you have. … Nobody should spend time on anyone or anything when that time is not valued.”[2]


One way to help employees save time, as well as address other types of waste and inefficiency, is with automation. Jon “Jet” Theuerkauf, Chief Customer Officer at Nintex, observes, “There’s no doubt that automation has dramatically changed how a business operates around the world. Streamlining manual tasks through event-based triggers has made workers vastly more efficient — allowing them to do more with less, improve experiences and increase profit margins.”[3] Manual tasks aren’t the only activities that can be automated. Business processes can also be automated to reduce waste and increase efficiency. Analysts at Quandary Consulting Group (QCP) explain, “While a business is more than the sum of its parts, the truth is that workflows can either give a business the edge or keep it from growing.”[4]


Improving Process Automation


According to Theuerkauf, “Investments in automation are not always equal. While task-based automation provides impressive short-term gains in productivity, they often stop short of enabling true business transformation. Enabling agility in today’s highly competitive, always-on world requires organizations to move beyond simple task automation to implement intelligent automation across processes and business systems to achieve true strategic value.” And QCG analysts add, “Ineffective processes waste valuable resources. Plus, they can damage customer relationships and workplace culture. The key to giving your business the best chance of success is process improvement.” According to the QCG analysts, the best place to start process improvement is by asking a series of questions: “Which processes should be improved? What’s the best way to go about optimizing workflows in a business? And finally, how can your organization avoid the pitfalls that cause process optimization to fail?”


They go on to describe a few indicators that can point to processes that are currently in need of improvement. Those indicators include: continuous, avoidable data entry errors; employee complaints about how processes work; customer complaints; excessive unnecessary processes; process bottlenecks; processes that don’t scale; and a decreasing bottom line despite increased revenue. Once you have identified which processes you want to improve, take a critical look at how those processes currently work. As Bill Gates once noted, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” Don’t assume everything is working smoothly. As QCG analysts note, “Every organization has processes that could be improved. With customer demands and the digital landscape changing all the time, the only way your business succeeds is to be forward-thinking.” QCG analysts suggest enterprises use a 9-step approach to process improvement. Those steps include:


Step 1. Map out the process. “You can use a variety of tools to map out processes, from value stream mapping to fishbone diagrams. The tool you use depends on what the process is, what your goals are, and how you plan to measure success.”


Step 2. Analyze the process. “You’re looking for slowdowns, bottlenecks, waste, redundancies, or really anything that just doesn’t make sense.”


Step 3. Design improvements. “Solutions can be as simple as removing steps to the process or they may involve more complex measures like deploying automation or building custom applications to better support the workflow. The key in this step is to find realistic, cost-effective improvements that your team can not only deploy but will adopt moving forward.”


Step 4. Find solutions. “When you cannot simply reduce, combine, or eliminate steps in any given process, you need to look for solutions. Typically, these will be third-party solutions and will come in the form of either outsourcing or software.”


Step 5. Deploy improvements. “This is perhaps the most challenging part of process improvement. Deploying improvements is not as simple as flipping on a switch. Sometimes, you need to transition from one software platform to another. This can cause delays or downtime. If you’re outsourcing, there most likely will be a learning curve for your vendor.”


Step 6. Collect data. “The key to knowing whether or not a process works is data. Now is the time to collect data and compare it to the data you collected at the start of your optimizations.”


Step 7. Review implementation. “From the moment your new workflow goes live, you’ll want to monitor it. … You’ll want to interview everyone involved in the process to see how well the implementation is going. And you’ll want to use those insights along with the data collected to further modify processes.”


Step 8. Redeploy improvements. “With the right insights and reflection, you’re ready to redeploy implementations. You’ll have an updated workflow based on real insights.”


Step 9. Continue to make improvements. “Process improvement isn’t a one-and-done process. You need to continuously track performance, record data, and get feedback on implementations. Not only will this help you fine-tune processes, but it’s also in alignment with ensuring your business stays agile.”


QCG analysts conclude, “When it comes to improving processes, everything is up for discussion. It’s important that you analyze any and all variables at each process. There is always a better way to do something.”


Focus on Improvement not Automation


Any good consultant will tell you that people, processes, and technology must all be taken into consideration when trying to improve your business. Theuerkauf agrees that business leaders must “focus on people and processes, not just technology.” He explains, “[A survey conducted by Knowledge Capital Partners (KCP) in partnership with Blue Prism] found most failures of digital transformation projects are a result of managerial and organizational challenges rather than technical challenges. Enterprises need to take the time to really understand workflows and how intelligent automation can drive value across the business. Then they can put the people and processes in place to execute on these intelligent automation goals.”


Industry marketing executive Deborah Miller suggests that people both in and out of the enterprise need to be taken into consideration. She explains, “Process improvement is about delivering on the promise we make to our customers to provide a respectful, efficient and high-quality experience. This should be true for both our internal and external customers. For how can we provide a positive end-customer experience if our own employees and partners are caught in manual-intensive, non-productive, confusing and, at times, mind-numbing processes?”[5]


Concluding Thoughts


Failure to focus on people, process, and technology will result in less than optimal results. Although I have stressed the process and people part of the equation in the above discussion, the technology is no less important. Miller notes, “Human intelligence has typically fueled business decisions, but now artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming an important part of the automation toolkit.” That’s why Enterra Solutions® continues to focus on advancing Autonomous Decision Science™ (ADS®). ADS is the next step in the journey beyond data science. Using ADS, the machine plays the role of the data scientist or subject matter expert to help optimize your business and help it run at the speed of the marketplace. As a result, you can make decisions that take advantage of market opportunities as quickly as possible.


[1] Amy Wolkenhauer, “25+ Famous Quotes About Time Passing Too Quickly,” Cake, 8 November 2021.
[2] Glenn L. Friedman, “Respect, Safeguard, and Value Your Time, Your Most Precious Commodity,” Prager Metis, 3 September 2020.
[3] Jon Theuerkauf, “Four Ways To Approach Process Automation,” Forbes, 8 September 2021.
[4] Staff, “Process Improvement: Cut Waste and Improve Business Efficiency,” Quandary Consulting Group, 2021.
[5] Deborah Miller, “Why Process Automation Is Not Always Process Improvement,” CMS Wire, 14 April 2020.

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