What should you look for in your various departments that might indicate the need for process automation?
There was one company I worked at where it took three weeks for a customer order to be processed and confirmation sent out to the customer. Not the actual product they had ordered, just acknowledgement that we had received their order.
The first hint that things were not all that they could be was the line of red faced sales people gesticulating at the poor people in the sales order processing department; the second was the volume of customer complaints and cancelled orders.
This was a very process-driven company, so there had to be a good reason for the delays.
To find out what the problem was we picked out a fresh order and walked it through the process, getting each person to stop what they were doing and do their bit of the process immediately. From start to finish we walked an order through in 27 minutes. A slight improvement on 15 days!
The problem was the paper trail and the vast number of in-trays and out-trays that the orders had to move through. It wasn’t actually anyone’s job to collect the contents of an out-tray and move it along to where it needed to go.
Automating the system and red flagging orders that had stalled for more than an hour transformed the SOP process into something that took a maximum of two hours. The reduction in cancelled orders alone quickly paid for the system that we implemented.
Look for your own bottlenecks, manually go through the process that is causing the delays and see how quickly it can be done when a senior manager is doing the walking. If it is significantly faster, then you can start looking at how best to streamline the process. It might be through process automation but not necessarily.
- Broken Processes
Often you find a department where things are working okay, but only because people are ignoring the process they are supposed to follow and someone has implemented a work around that gets things done in a faster, more efficient way.
The first thing to do is encourage people to bring these ideas and changes to your attention so that you can look at the new process, make sure that nothing important is being missed and that any regulatory compliance is being met and then formalise it. If automating part or all of the process can help, then plan to do that and make sure that the person who devised the new system is included in the project team.
- The Decision Process
Yes, even the ‘simple’ job of making business decisions can be a long and torturous adventure. This is one area where having automated business processes can really pay off, because as part of that automation system you will have created a central database that will make the information gathering part of your decision making process so much faster.
Making data driven decisions is always a good idea, but for many companies their data is so broken up across the company that gathering enough information for it to be meaningful becomes a painful process.
When you start automating multiple areas of your business and centralising the data you gather, you are stepping into the area of an ERP system. The magic of ERP is that all departmental data goes into one database and that data is available to anyone in the company to whom you’ve permitted access.
Once people can access data from all departments quickly, the decision process can be much faster and based on better data. Particularly for small companies, this can provide a substantial advantage over competitors who are still piecing together solutions.