Robotic process automation: Part II of a five-part series

Part II: Creating a process automation strategy

It’s simple, right? You bought a robotic process automation (RPA) tool, thinking you were going to automate a bunch of processes and save the company millions.

It worked fine for a couple of simple processes, but now you’re not sure what to automate next. Even worse, after only a few months, the automation robots you implemented are having issues. What happened? It was all working on Friday!

Your main problem isn’t that you chose the wrong automation tool (although that might also be an issue). Your problem is that you didn’t put together an automation strategy, before you bought the tool.

So, what’s an automation strategy?

An automation strategy is planning and management of your automation initiative. A typical automation strategy should answer the following questions:

  • Which processes do we want to automate?
  • With which applications will we have to interact?
  • Who maintains those applications, and how often are they updated?
  • Who needs to know that we have automation running against the applications?
  • How do we find new automation opportunities?
  • How do we get notified before changes are made to an application?
  • Is there test data available, so we don’t have to test with production data?
  • With what security rules and regulations do we have to be compliant?
  • Which departments (e.g., IT, Security, HR) need to be involved?
  • What resources will need to be involved, and for how long?
  • What’s the overall cost of implementing the solution?
    Hint: the automation product is probably the least expensive part of the solution.

To be sure, even with all of those items to manage, automation provides a high return on your investment. I have helped many companies implement automation into their environments and, for every one of them, it’s always been worth the time and expense. It’s definitely worth the time and money to implement process automation but, to have real success with it, you must do it the right way.

Five steps

Here are my five steps to implement a successful automation strategy:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
    Talk to someone who has already implemented a successful strategy. Maybe it’s a manager of another group in your organization, or a trusted partner. Copying another successful implementation in the same industry is the best way to get started quickly.
    Another option is to find a vendor that understands your industry and your problems. There are a lot of automation tools out there, and many are very generic. Consequently, most vendors don’t have specific domain expertise. To them, all automation is the same. I can tell you: it’s not! There’s a big difference between automating a simple desktop task and automating, for example, complex medical claims.
    Do a Web search to find the right vendor and solution; but don’t search for automation or even robotic process automation; you’ll find very generic solutions from vendors who have no expertise in your area. Instead, make your searches specific — for example, automating medical claims.
  2. Pick your team carefully.
    Yes, that’s right: you’ll need an automation team. It should consist of at least one business analyst, one technical person (this could be an IT resource), at least one programmer (someone has to “build” the software robots), and a decision-maker or approval committee (to decide “What do we automate next?”). You also should have a subject matter expert (SME), but this role could — and should — be rotated among several people. Each SME has expertise with certain processes so, engage only the best SME for the process you intend to automate next.
  3. Define your process.
    Your process should start with identifying the next (or first) automation opportunity. It should also include the method used to identify automation opportunities; and, before you begin your first one, you should have a list of five to 10 opportunities. In fact: for each opportunity, you should be able to calculate the potential ROI, and that should be the highest criterion on which you base the decision to automate a process. However, basing it on cost is only one option. You could use the “squeaky wheel” approach. This is where you choose to automate processes that draw the most employee complaints. Although this might result in minimal cost savings, it could be worth it to make your users happier!
    Once you define the list of automation opportunities, you need to implement them. The rest of the process should be defining the requirements with the SME, validating the business rules with the business analyst, documenting the step-by-step instructions with business rules, and providing those rules to the programmer for creation of the software robot.
    Testing is critical. Make sure that (a.) you have valid test data that truly represents real, production data and (b.) it can emulate all of the scenarios implemented in the robot. That’s the only way to test your robot fully before it moves to production.
  4. Have a backup plan.
    What happens if you have 10 robots running all day and, suddenly, they all stop? Let’s say that, up to this point, your automation solution has been so successful that you were able to eliminate 50 FTEs. But now, you don’t have the people to do the work and your robots aren’t running. Your backup plan must take into account this nasty scenario and others like it.
  5. Measure, measure, measure.
    Make sure your software robots provide the data related to the work they’re doing. This is some of the most valuable data in your organization. Use an analytics tool (if your automation product doesn’t already have one built into it) and analyze the data. What you’ll get from it is not only what your robots did but, more importantly, what they didn’t do. Of course, what they didn’t do is what they should do. That can help you understand how to improve your robots and the value of doing so.

If you carefully plan and take advantage of the knowledge and experience of others, you will have a successful automation strategy. Remember: don’t automate unless you have a strategy in place ahead of time!

Part III: Choosing the right process automation solution.