A question worth discussing
During a recent visit to an RPA conference the discussion turned to the question in the title: “Should we automate our processes, or should we improve them first?”. Some participants stated that before automating a business process it is important to make sure it’s already optimal. It’s hard to argue with that. This goes along with a much-cited quote by Thorsten Dirks, former CEO of Telefónica Germany. He famously stated that “if you digitize a bad process, you have a bad digital process” (freely translated).
In any organization, there are processes with inefficiencies which haven’t been taken care of. There may be activities in a process which are only necessary because of missing data. Think of a manual check in order capturing for products, which is added due to unreliable product availability data. If we automate this process, we are automating a work-around. In other words: We are automating waste.
Improvement is a prerequisite to automation
So, we should improve our processes before going for automation. We can analyze the as-is state of a process and identify inefficiencies. Then we conduct workshops to generate improvement measures. As a last step, we gather stakeholder approval for the improved to-be process.
Once this improved process is implemented, we again see that there is potential for efficiency gains through automation. To achieve these benefits, we again analyze the process. We identify specific automation potentials and conduct workshops for solution design. Again, we gather approvals and define the automated to-be process, before developing the solution.
Many of the tasks we perform in these automation efforts will be the same or at least similar to those we performed in our improvement efforts. Even worse, some of the changes implemented for process improvement may be unnecessary or even counterproductive in the automated process. Is this really the most efficient path to digital transformation?
Automation is process improvement
Coming back to the question in the title of this post, the answer might lay in rephrasing the question. Perhaps automation and process improvement should not be considered as separate concepts. Indeed, it makes more sense if we consider automation as a sub-category, albeit a very powerful and extensive one, of process improvement.
Any process improvement initiative should consider automation. At the same time, any automation effort should consider “conventional” improvement when designing the automated to-be process.
The question we should be discussing
In summary, automating business processes without removing inefficiencies doesn’t make sense. Also, conducting process improvement measures, but separating them from automation solution design, is inefficient. So, the question shouldn’t be whether to automate or improve first, it should be “How do we integrate process improvement and automation measures” to achieve optimal digitized processes.