Unless you have been sleeping under a rock on Mars, I am sure you would have heard of Robotics Process Automation (RPA) impacting jobs across industries. Even more so, if you are in the Process Excellence field. Most predictions and prophecies suggest that most of us in the Process Excellence field won’t be needed in a few years. The concern is real and extremely valid. Over the last five years, the process excellence function has had to respond to the challenge thrown by RPA, and we have been found wanting. Like all challenging situations, we first denied the change, then doubted it; and by the time we realized it is real we were left gasping.
All is not lost though. Process Excellence and RPA have a complementary role, neither is complete without the other. Before I explain this, let us examine some macro topics:
The Process Excellence function has changed every five years or so over the last 30-35 years. Change is the default mode when it comes to our function, RPA is another change we now have to adapt to. Some key challenges in the last two to three decades include the Balanced Scorecard, the Malcolm Baldrige and EFQM Model, Six Sigma, Lean, and some more. All through this period, our obituary was written several times over by the ERP wave riders.
We can disagree with the disruptions but I hope you recognize that the process excellence functions change every few years.
What is the role of process excellence professional? In my view, we are at our best as diagnosticians. Kaizen, QC Circles, Lean, Six Sigma, Desktop Automation, Robotics, etc., are remedies that need to be administered based on the patient's ailment, capacity to manage severe medication, budget, etc.
If a process team has not been able to implement Kaizen, then do we think they can manage Robotics? Pretty unlikely. If a process team has struggled with adopting desktop automation in the past, would they embrace Robotics? Unlikely.
Business is brutal now, and the demand to grow business and save cost is many folds compared to a few years ago. Upto 10% sometimes, 15-20% efficiency is now a norm; such aggressive goals need new tools. The tools we learned while growing up are not enough to deliver this. We need new weapons, RPA is a new weapon for us.
The technology was a black box for us in Operations till only a decade ago. They made their money by not letting us know much. Technology speaks the business language like never before, and operations understand technology as an enabler. The distance between the two is now easier to cross.
I have been on several RPA implementation projects and programs over the last three years, and have seen how the Process Excellence function works closely with RPA teams for success. Some ways in which we work together include:
“Process Excellence and RPA working together can unearth issues that either of them alone cannot.”
Like all developments; an RPA program first needs to understand requirements, develop the solution, and then deploy it. It is in understanding the requirements and deploying, wherein Process Excellence plays a pivotal role.
Let us see an example; in an Automation initiative, the technical experts reviewed the process requirements and suggested that 20 bots will be adequate to handle volumes and deliver within SLA. When the deployment commenced, we observed significant variations in process time; and soon realized that the BOT estimates were not adequate. Why? We had to call in some Process Excellence experts who studied volume and arrival pattern for a longer duration. We quickly identified that there were really four types of processes at play, each needed a different approach and timeline for completion. I am not suggesting that this study was beyond the RPA team’s capability. But, such an analysis is bread and butter for a Process Excellence professional. Lesson learned- Process Excellence and RPA working together can unearth issues that either of them alone cannot.
RPA is still pretty much a technical subject. Process Excellence can help in choosing- the right project and the right approach. Like I explained earlier, we must bring a Diagnostic approach to Process Excellence. We have multiple remedies at our disposal, and we should understand which one will work in what situation.
Let us see another example, a process that included multiple email/Outlook based Automation was assessed for Robotics deployment. A solution was developed and it would have cost about $100k. Since, the cost was high and timelines for development were significant, we approached the Process Excellence team to do a process review. They offered a simpler solution using basic automation tools and almost free of cost. Lesson learned- Automation is not always Robotics. We should explore options.
After the projects are delivered and deployed there is still the question of Return on Investment to be answered. Most Process Excellence professionals are deeply embedded in business and can do a good assessment of the actual benefits, and work with Finance to calculate return on investment. This is something the technically-oriented RPA team may not want to do or may lack the skills to do.
Yes, it will survive and thrive if it learns the language of automation, adapts to the speed needed, and takes ownership of delivery. Process Excellence has to rise to face yet another Disruption, and it must do this by embracing it. I have seen enough in my career to know that we have to be a wave rider to a disruption. If we don’t ride the wave, we get washed away.
Another interesting read: How to measure Process Capability and Process Performance?