A Practical Guide to Implementing Robotic Process Automation for Small Businesses

Robotic Process Automation is not only for large organizations. By following this simple framework, small businesses can now implement Robotic Process Automation to achieve operational excellence.

There has been a lot of buzz around Robotic Process Automation (RPA) lately.


For example, DBS Bank, the largest in fast-growing Southeast Asia, announced that robotics enables DBS to free up 25,000 man hours of menial work.


Not to be outdone, United Overseas Bank’s 2 new robot employees is helping to cut data processing time by half.


It seems like many large corporations, particularly those in the Banking, Financial Services & Insurance industry, are leveraging RPA technology to improve enterprise productivity and achieve operational excellence.


Source: SSON Analytics


If you are a small business (which includes entrepreneurs, sole proprietors, startups, and small and medium-sized enterprises), what can you do?


Failure to adopt digital technologies and to transform digitally will only widen the capability gap between small businesses and large corporations, and lead small businesses down the slippery slope of irrelevance.


Yet at the same time, maybe you are not so technology-savvy.


Or perhaps, you do not have the resources to research this new technology on your own.


That’s why we have put together this article – to improve the accessibility of RPA technology to small businesses, and to guide you step-by-step in your RPA journey.


But first, let’s cover two key concepts.


What is RPA? And why does it matter to you?


RPA refers to the use of software "robots" that mimic tasks usually performed by humans. These robots are especially helpful for automating repetitive, rule-based processes that require interaction with multiple, disparate IT systems.


It is widely expected that in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, clerical work will be automated the way industrial robotics automated production in the shop floor.


So why are so many companies rushing to implement RPA? Because of the following benefits:


  1. Reduces manpower costs as each software "robot" costs only a fraction of a FTE

  2. Increases speed to market as the software "robots" execute tasks instantaneously

  3. Eliminates the risks of human errors

  4. Ensures regulatory compliance

  5. Improves productivity as the software "robots" operate 24/7 with minimal downtime

  6. Flexibility to scale up and down the robotic operations depending on business requirements

  7. Improves employee engagement by removing mundane, menial tasks from them

  8. Transforms the operating paradigm from labour-intensive to technology-centric


To summarize simply, RPA can help your company become cheaper, faster and better.


Efficiency and effectiveness


Effectiveness refers to doing the right things, and is the foundation of success.


Efficiency, on the other hand, means doing things the right way. It is a minimum condition for survival after success is achieved.


The following diagram aptly sums up the relationship between the two:


So why are we sharing this with you?


The point here is that we should only be looking at processes that are already effective, before attempting to increase their efficiency through automation.


This sounds obvious, but is not always what happens in reality.


After all, if you agree with the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule, then as much as eighty percent of your activities at work at either ineffective, inefficient, or both.


Going one step further, consider the following gem of wisdom by Bill Gates:


“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.”


The implication is that we should also determine if our process is effective, but inefficient. If so, it is unlikely that RPA will reap us significant benefits.


Instead, it will be worthwhile to spend some effort to streamline the process first before attempting automation.


In summary, the automation of an effective and efficient process will maximize the returns on investment of your RPA initiatives.

Now that we are done with the theory, let’s move on to our 6-step implementation framework.


Step 1: Make a firm commitment to change and continuous improvements


“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

– Wayne Dyer


This is so true for RPA as well.


RPA (or technology in general), in and of itself, is nothing but a means to an end.


Many organizations make the fatal assumption that RPA is a silver bullet that can magically solve all its problems. And this in turn causes them to become too preoccupied with the technology itself.


Do not make the same mistake.


Instead, focus on your people first. Make sure that they are committed to a culture of change and continuous improvements.


Get this right, and the rest is really a walk in the park.


Step 2: Align RPA to your business strategy and objectives


“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

– Sun Tzu


The inconvenient truth is that RPA is simply not suitable for everything. “Fit for purpose” is a key consideration and success criteria.


Perhaps this is the reason why the failure rates of RPA implementations are as high as 30-50%.


For a small business, this is obviously unacceptable. To avoid falling into such pitfalls, it is vital that you begin with the end in mind.


What this means is that you need to analyse your current and future business strategy, and competitive gaps. Then, determine if and how RPA can you meet your business objectives.


To elaborate further, your value proposition to your customer broadly falls into the following three categories:


Source: MaRS


For example, if your identified strategy is operational excellence, then you need to consider how implementing RPA can help you maintain lean and efficient processes, while providing you with cost leadership.


Only when RPA is aligned with your business strategy and objectives should you then proceed to the next step. Do not make the mistake of implementing the latest and greatest technology for its own sake.


Step 3: Identify your activity landscape


RPA is very much process-driven.


Success is often times determined by whether the appropriate process is chosen for automation. And this requires a thorough understanding of your internal business processes.


The good news is that most small businesses know their processes inside-out.


Nevertheless, it is still good practice to document this knowledge, using tools like Value Stream Mapping (VSM) for instance.


According to Wikipedia, VSM is a lean-management method for analysing the current state and designing a future state for the series of events that take a product or service from its beginning through to the customer.


Source: Wikipedia


VSM is a very useful tool to help improve a process by identifying added value and eliminating waste.


Obviously, in our case here, we will focus our attention on the information flows, and where RPA can be applied judiciously to improve the process.


On a side note, the concept of “gemba” is very important at this stage.


Gemba is a popular concept in lean manufacturing, and encompasses the idea that “if a problem occurs, the engineers must go [to the manufacturing floor] to understand the full impact of the problem, gathering data from all sources.”


Applied here, it simply means that you need to have a first-hand account of your processes. Do not reply on second-hand sources, (outdated) documentations, surveys, assumptions, etc.


Step 4: Identify opportunity areas and assess feasibility


To identify opportunities for automation, some of the questions we need to ask ourselves include:


  • Could a set of instructions be easily given to a new employee to follow?

  • Are the input/output data already digitized and in a consistent or known format?

  • Could the decision points be defined and documented?

  • Does execution require the use of multiple systems/applications that are not integrated?

  • Is there a high rate of error or high impact if errors occur?

  • Is the process repetitive, mundane, and hence not engaging for the employees?

  • Is there a high volume of transactions? Or perhaps low volume but long execution time?

  • Is there any cyclicality that might benefit from scalable resourcing?

  • Does the process require an audit trail for regulatory or compliance reasons?

  • Assuming it takes an average 5 days to automate this process, does this feel justifiable?


The above checklist is not exhaustive, but going through these questions will give you a very good feel on whether you have found the right candidate for RPA.


In short, the more “yes” you have, the better the fit.


Step 5: Generate and prioritize RPA initiatives


At this stage, hopefully you will have identified a few processes for automation.


Obviously you will not have enough resources to do all at once, so some prioritization is required.


Referring to the chart below, ideally you want to start with processes that are in the upper right quadrant.


That is, processes with a high readiness to execute (low process complexity and high business readiness) and high strategic attractiveness (significant business impact and aligns with overall business strategy).


An effective way to do this is to create a Process Prioritization Matrix such as the following:


Step 6: Develop action plan


The final step is to create an action plan that assigns responsibilities, and establishes budgets, durations and deliverables.


One thing to note is that it is important to set measurable business objectives and targets.


As H. James Harrington says, “measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”


With this action plan in hand, you are now ready to rock-and-roll.


Just one last word of advice.


For your very first RPA initiative, you will probably want to start small by doing a Proof-of-Concept (PoC) or Pilot.


This will give you sufficient time to get yourself acquainted with this new technology, and also help to mitigate any downside risks that you face.


It is never too late to scale RPA after the initial PoC or Pilot is proven successful.


Conclusion


We have covered a 6-step framework to implement RPA successfully in small businesses.


First, make a firm commitment to change and continuous improvements.


Second, align RPA to your business strategy and objectives.


Third, identify your activity landscape.


Fourth, identify opportunity areas and assess feasibility.


Fifth, generate and prioritize RPA initiatives.


Last, develop an action plan.


With this 6-step implementation framework, RPA is no longer the privileged domain of big corporations. Small businesses can now also leverage RPA to digitally transform their operations and achieve operational excellence.


Good automating.


To all small businesses out there, do you have any RPA success stories to share? Do share them in the comments below.


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