process automationNow that it’s been recognized as a basic building block of digital transformation, process automation is getting its fair share of attention. But while it can be a tremendous lever for growth, innovation and competitive advantage, process automation isn’t fail-proof.

That’s because it entails more than bringing new technology tools to the table, it requires a rigorous discipline to see the process from the beginning all the way through and beyond – to reap the rewards of continuous improvement. Think you can handle the truth about process automation? If so, read on: 

Process automation is a defined way to eliminate manual, time-consuming and costly tasks within an organization by replacing them with automated processes that are faster, reduce repetition and costs, and which offer an improved employee experience.

There are a plethora of tools for process automation these days ­— from Business Process Management solutions to Robotic Process Automation. The hard part is not finding the technology — selecting a vendor is the easiest part of the equation. The real work starts once the purchase order is signed.

While many organizations start out with the best of intentions for process automation initiatives, they don’t fully realize they aren’t ready to automate their processes because they don’t really know what their processes are. Processes aren’t well documented or thought out from a best-practice perspective, and often there’s an overabundance and over-reliance on tribal knowledge. You can’t transform tribal knowledge. “This is the way it’s always been done,” can sometimes be the most powerful force in tamping down innovation.

The trick is not to get frustrated. Prepare yourself for the idea that transforming processes is just that — a process. A process that takes discipline.

Here are three important steps to guide your process automation initiatives:

Step 1: Figure out what you want to automate.

This may sound patronizing; however, it’s not that organizations don’t know what they want to automate, it’s that all too often the vast amount of processes in need of automation are so plentiful it can be overwhelming to know where to start. As well, an organization that tries to tackle too much too soon will find resources being spread too thin and results lacking.

A good approach is to define a “starter set” of processes that will deliver return on effort quickly. Ideal processes to look into are those that are time-consuming, and for which employee handling is simply just that – lots of handling but with little value added in the coordination. Don’t make the mistake of cutting to the quick and tackling business “mission-critical” processes first as this can introduce too much risk in your early process automation pilot efforts.

Many organizations still spend considerable staff time doing repetitive manual tasks. These kinds of activities often include data input and output, transaction processing and entering customer information into databases – these processes are ripe for automation/transformation.

Once you’ve identified these processes, you can chart a course for change. And when you’ve reached the process nirvana promised land, you can then move on to automate more mission-critical and customer-centric processes.

The trick is not to get frustrated. Prepare yourself for the idea that transforming processes is just that — a process. A process that takes discipline.

Step 2: Determine the rules currently governing those actions/activities.

There are many information resources available regarding business process modeling – the method of graphically representing business processes and integration among enterprise applications so that the current process can be analyzed, improved and automated.

As part of this process, there must be rules in place to govern processes and conditions for escalation. Who has authority to do what? Under what circumstances and given what scenarios?

As organizations move forward mapping these attributes, they may find they are doing things wrong. Often, they find their existing processes are a residual of times long past. Organic growth often results in expedient solutions to problems in the moment, with little attention to future needs for process flexibility or scalability.

This process of “getting clean” can be like organizational therapy. Only by understanding the rules governing processes can organizations understand if they are still relevant and applicable. Organizations may need to break the rules to break free and put in place faster, better and more cost-effective means of working. 

A word to the wise: Simplify as much as possible. The faster and easier the process, the easier it is to achieve the return on investment.

Step 3: Monitor and measure results to form the baseline for continuous improvement.

“Set it and forget it,” has no place in process automation. Monitoring results is critical to gauge performance and to glean the necessary insights to make “revisions” to processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

However, more often than not, this step is overlooked due to a lack of focus or resources.

It’s important to have metrics in place to measure process performance as it’s pivotal to the success of process automation initiatives. Without this data, it can be difficult for organizations to know whether their processes are becoming outdated or ineffective. Fortunately, integrated analytics and dashboarding available today are making the process of tracking and measuring performance easier than ever before.

Process automation is like a 12-step program for the enterprise. It’s a methodical and disciplined approach to rooting out inefficiencies and amending processes to help organizations achieve greater growth and prosperity.

And as with all transformations, only with truth can you see the light. If organizations are prepared to take on the real work that is needed for process automation, they’ll reap the rewards of cost savings and greater efficiency, giving them the means to support better employee and customer experiences.

Ray Emirzian is senior director of product management with DocStar, and also oversees its AP Automation practice. He has more than two decades of experience in business process analysis, business process automation, and business consultation working with industry-leading organizations including NCR, Canon USA and AuthentiDate Holding Corporation.