How Lean Thinking Helps in Robotic Process Automation


What is lean?

Simply put, lean is about maximizing value (however you define it) while minimizing waste.

Mention lean and examples like the Toyota Production System readily comes to mind. However, it is a common misconception that lean is applicable only to manufacturing.

This cannot be further away from the truth.

Fact is that lean can be applied in every business and every process. As the Lean Enterprise Institute puts it, lean is not a tactic or a cost reduction program, but a way of thinking and acting for an entire organization.

The key is in the thought process. Many firms are increasingly using lean thinking as a methodology to guide their business transformation. And with the Lean Transformation Framework (LTF), organizations now have a practicable model to implement lean thinking.

This article explores how lean thinking can be applied to Robotic Process Automation (RPA). More specifically, we explore how you can utilize the concepts in lean thinking to increase the probability of success for your RPA implementations. We do so by considering the five critical questions of the LTF as follows:

What problem are you trying to solve?

Everything starts with a clearly defined problem statement. Alternatively, you can view this as your value-driven purpose.

For the purpose of our discussion, let’s take the example of an insurance firm. The problem identified could be the (relatively) long lead time required to process a single claim. In this case, it would be instructive to understand how long it currently takes to process a claim, as well as the desired service standards deemed necessary to retain and attract customers.

Likewise for RPA. The starting point for any conversations around RPA should be the business problems that need to be addressed, not the technology in and of itself. Many RPA deployments have less than satisfactory outcomes precisely because the companies involved were too eager to implement the technology without considering the fitness aspect. In this regard, a robust process selection methodology and the discipline to adhere to the methodology is necessary.

How do you improve the work?

Having clarified your problem statement, the next step is to perform a deep dive into the process. The objective here is to break down this work into the various sub tasks and understand where improvements are needed.

Going back to our previous example, for the insurer, the identified challenge could be the various legacy applications that the claims processing team need to handle. Or it could be the disparate input media (paper, electronic documents, images and emails) that the team needs to handle at various stages of the claims processing cycle.

Only then can you make an informed assessment on whether RPA can help to improve the current work process. In some cases, process re-engineering might be a prerequisite to extracting value through RPA.

As Bill Gates famously declared, the first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

Our goal is to strive for the former, not the latter.

How do you develop the capability?

This is where the grunt work takes place. For the case of RPA, organizations need to consider setting up a RPA Centre of Excellence (CoE). This RPA CoE will enable organizations to systematically and sustainably extract value throughout their entire RPA journey.

As a quick overview, the twelve functions that your RPA CoE must perform include:

  1. Demand Management

  2. Feasibility Assessment

  3. Business Case

  4. Project Prioritization

  5. Automation Development

  6. Automation Implementation

  7. Monitoring

  8. Support

  9. Continuous Improvements

  10. Standards & Best Practices

  11. Performance Tracking

  12. Governance

Which brings us nicely to the next point.

What management systems and leader behaviours do you need?

Obviously, with automation, governance is absolutely critical. Without proper governance, the benefits or improvements seen with RPA will be overshadowed by the risks instead, particularly around compliance.

Some of the issues that you will need to consider include:

  • Does the RPA tool deployed meet your enterprise security, cybersecurity and data privacy requirements?

  • How are you handling exceptions?

  • Do you have a fall back plan in case the robots break?

  • How are you monitoring the activities of the robots?

Beyond systems, the importance of leadership cannot be overemphasized. RPA is a disruptive technology, which means leaders do need to communicate on a regular basis with the rank-and-file and to manage the concomitant organizational changes.

And do be cognizant about your employees’ fears as well. There is no doubt that automation will result in displacement of certain segments of workers. Acknowledge this and proactively work with the affected employees to come up with a transition plan.

What is your basic thinking?

Ultimately, the success of any RPA initiatives goes beyond just executive sponsorship, however important that is. You will need the entire organization’s buy-in as well. The best transformational outcomes are achieved when RPA is used as a tool to catalyse a mind set and cultural shift within the entire organization.

Hopefully, the above five questions have provided you with a useful framework for thinking about implementing RPA. And helped you avoid joining the ignominious list of failed RPA projects. If so, we will have achieved our objective of helping you avoid waste.

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