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By Mikel Lindsaar

Is my process worth automating?

Many companies have business processes that are a manual time-sink. These processes generate unwanted excess traffic and extra work in trying to get the job done. Not only do they take precious minutes (or hours!) out of your team's day, but they also result in mistakes, missed details and slipped deadlines.

But identifying which of these processes would benefit the most from automation can seem like a dark art. In a perfect world, everything would be automated and we would live in the paperless office nirvana sipping our favourite beverage and clicking "approved" or "denied" as new items came to our attention.

However in reality, trying to handle the flood of paper and forms can feel like battling the mythical hydra, no sooner do you lop off one form and two more rise to replace it.

So where do you focus your hard won budget to automate your operations?

1) Identify the Process

This might seem obvious, but the first major step in process automation is finding the process you want to automate. Quite often a process is not clearly understood and without full understanding and clarification of the process, any attempt to automate will be about as cost effective as keeping yourself warm by burning dollar bills.

When identifying the process, you want to look at it and write down all of the various types of things that move through the process and then all of the points where someone is doing something to those things. A good name for those things are "particles" and a good name for the people doing the actions are "terminals".

Listing out these terminals and particles is a good start to working out a business process and even documenting it.

Thus each particle enters the process, and proceeds along a known set of terminals through lines of communication, being changed or modified in some way at each point to reach an end result. Once this process is known, you can then look at the costs involved in supporting it.

2) Identify Potential to Improve

Before you spend hours and hours trying to calculate exact cost, it's a good idea to quickly evaluate if this process is worth automating at all. If the existing process takes one person an hour a week to do, then spending money to automate it is probably not going to generate a high ROI.

You want to take a quick look at all the people involved, how much time is spent working through the process? How much time, on average, is spent fixing mistakes that occur due to the manual nature of the process? And how much potential revenue is being lost due to the process not being efficient enough to handle more volume?

Don't spend a lot of time at this stage; you want to get best guess estimates, back of the napkin stuff. Just get some gut feelings from the various "terminals" in the process about these numbers and come up with a value.

Once you have that value, you then know if there is room to achieve an ROI through automation and you will soon enough know whether it is even something you want to move ahead with. You might have found that while the existing system is a manual process, the gains of going automatic would be marginal at best and so you can short circuit these steps and end here, not wasting time on step 3.

3) Calculate Budget and Get Initial Approvals

If your result in step 2 has shown that there would be significant cost savings or volume increases with automation, then now is the time to pull out the cost calculators and really determine the real ROI. This is where you are going to get your needed ammunition stockpiled to build a business case.

There are many factors that can be used to show ROI, which I will detail in a later post, but some of them include:

  • Reduced time spent by team members on the process
  • Reduced errors in implementing the process
  • Reduced costs previously caused by manual errors
  • Increased volume of products through the process
  • Increased velocity of results through the process
  • Reduced double handling in the process
  • Improved enforcement of organisational policy
  • Improved compliance
  • Improved reporting capabilities
  • etc...

Each of the above items can be used to show ROI on implementing business automation, and should be used to justify the cost of the process.

Once you have the cost reductions and production benefits worked out, get with the people you need initial approval from and hash out a broad budget. For example, if you work out in your estimates that the process would save 3 days a week of team member time, and potentially increase the quality of the process by 50%, then the cost to implement would need to be less than the combined cost of 3/5ths of a team member's wage and 50% of the net profit from the process over one or two years depending on the expectation of return in your organisation.

4) Prototyping the Automation

The final stage is working with a team to determine what the automation solution might look like. In today's world of connected devices, most automation software will live in the web browser, or on mobile devices.

Getting someone to work on a rapid application prototype will allow you to produce a rapid set of wireframes that allow you to demonstrate to the existing team what the new process will look like with pictures, instead of trying to explain it with words.

This is an important step and there are lots of free tools (or nearly free) tools you can use, for example:

  • Paper and Pen - this is one of the best ways to get your ideas on paper, pro hint, use a thick marker pen to prevent you trying to do too much detail in your designs.
  • Powerpoint / Keynote - building your basic ideas into a series of presentation screens is another great way to do things, try to avoid getting bogged down in design though, use blocks and circles and minimal text where possible.
  • Mockingbird and Balsamiq provides you with an online way to build out your prototype, allowing you to create links between the pages and more complex interactions.
  • Axure RP is what we use at reinteractive, it is a professional tool to get professional results, not the cheapest, but very powerful.

Alternatively, you can outsource it to a team (even our rapid prototype service if you would like). Be sure that whatever team you engage, to ask for examples of their work so that you have some good ideas on what sort of deliverables you get. Also ensure that any team you hire hand over the prototypes at the end, these should be yours if you are paying for them.

5) Next Steps

Once you have prototypes in hand and more importantly agreed on with your team and stakeholders, you can get estimates on implementation and make the final decision on whether or not to go ahead.

The key in this process is spending the minimum amount of money you need to at each step. Step 1 and 2 can be done in a couple of days. Step 3 alone might take a few days. Step 4 could take you a few weeks and Step 5 can take many months. Fixing mistakes and adjusting requirements is cheaper the earlier you do it, so it's much better to find out at Step 2 that this whole thing is a waste of time than it is mid way through building the product.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. I'll be happy to answer them :) To keep up to date with our business posts you can also follow us on LinkedIn.

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