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Customers, not cost is the foundation of successful automation

The pursuit of efficiency has been the holy grail of many different process improvement methodologies promoted over the last 80 years.

Kaizen. Total Quality Management. Six Sigma. Lean. And now Robotic Process Automation (RPA). While the names and the techniques applied have changed, the desired outcome remains the same;Less friction, less cost, less effort - greater ease.

However while the goal may seem obvious, the path to achieving it is anything but for many businesses. In fact, 50% of RPA projects fail - which means not just wasted effort and expense, but a failure to make any discernible improvement to your bottom line, your stakeholders or your customers.

Why greater ease isn’t easy.

On the surface, it’s a deceptively simple proposition - find a process ripe for automation and fix it, being mindful that some processes are more appropriate choices than others:

It's imperative to understand how business-critical workflows are performing and which processes are a good fit for automation initiatives. After all, automating a bad process doesn't fix the process. Doing so usually makes things worse and causes bottlenecks and backlogs, which can be costly and drain resources. Anthony Macciola - Forbes 2020

But it’s exactly here that most businesses fall down. Not in the understanding of process performance, but in making the determination of what bad process is.

Or more importantly, in whose opinion, a process is bad or good. Here’s a hint: the 50% of projects which fail, are those that don’t start with the needs, thoughts and opinions of their customers and users as the core basis for determining what good looks like.

Army and Government get it right

In the US, the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) and the Army joined forces to announce their successful use of bots to automate a highly complex and monolithic procurement process to save hours on the processing of applications.

In fact, just one of the bots they have tested and deployed is estimated to save a whopping 11,000 hours a year.

The article in which they describe their journey is well worth a read in you can find the time. However, the core takeaway can be summed up by the approach Liz Chirico, the acquisition innovation lead in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for procurement.

She said the Army tested the bot out with 1,000 contract specialists in the first.

The basis for success wasn't the building of the bot, or the desire to save money. It was through the understanding that a substantial number of both their workforce, their partners and other ‘customers’ of the process were experiencing a huge amount of friction, and then involving these customers from start to finish of the discovery, design and implementation of possible solutions.

At no point did the Army top brass (ha!) simply implement a change that would save them money. They started from the basis of understanding who was feeling pain, and designed to relieve this. Saving money is (almost) a happy coincidence.

The upshot

The importance of starting in the right when considering how automation cannot be overstated. The technology, or the money saved, while important, are not the anchor points that need to drive your strategy. Your users, your customers, your people feeling the pain from today’s poor processes. Making it easier for them to do their jobs is THE key place to start.

It’s from here that the good ideas come - and that good things happen.

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