Automation is all the rage these days. Whether it be robotic process automation (RPA), workflow automation (DPA) or some combination thereof, business and technology leaders have jumped on the bandwagon of savings and capabilities that automation platforms promise to provide. With teases of large ROIs, many technology leaders dive headfirst into delivering automated solutions in hopes of gaining grand savings – and many fail. While those advertised returns are reachable, they require a good bit of planning and analysis, as well as a solid strategy. While automation platforms are incredible with their capabilities and speed to market, even the best intentions can fall victim to common mistakes that can derail the entire effort.
Throughout my automation journey with clients, I’ve identified some common missteps that can cost a client dearly in time, money and credibility with their business partners. These errors, however, are easy to avoid with a little planning, analysis and upfront strategy. Although there certainly are many other pitfalls to stumble into when implementing automation solutions, these tend to be the most costly from which to recover.
#1 — Cost versus Capability
There are several dozen products on the market offering automation capabilities – from high-end platforms automating complex business rules to simple workflow automations and everything in between. Add to that the myriad of enterprise platforms that also offer “automation” as part of their capability sets. No doubt, some demand a higher licensing fee while others seemingly give their platforms away. While a lower-cost solution can be very enticing, especially in times of tight budgets, it is very important to understand what capabilities you might be giving up as a result of the cost-conscious option. Price is certainly an important attribute to consider, but it shouldn’t be the primary attribute; I dare say, it should be your last consideration.
When selecting the right automation platform, focus first on understanding the capabilities of the options and how they may benefit your organization in the long term. For example, if you think you might need both mobile and in-house automation, then a platform that requires separate development for mobile apps is not the best option as you’ll wind up developing the same solution twice, thus doubling your cost. If your business is managed with a set of complex business rules and calculations, or requires a case-management solution, a more basic platform would not be a good fit, either.
Once you have a better understanding of what each platform can do for you, create and rate your requirements and score them accordingly. A good scoring system will whittle the list to the top three and then (and only then) should you do a three-year total-cost-of-ownership study. If you focus on cost too early, then those who are only concerned with cost could easily distract you from finding the best tool for your automation needs. Of course, staying within budget is important, but you won’t reach that lofty ROI goal with a platform that cannot automate your business to its fullest potential.
#2 — Single Process Focus
I once worked with a client that was interested in automating a process within its tax department using a robotic process automation (RPA) platform. A high-level description of the process indicated it would be a good candidate for automation until we began obtaining a more granular understanding of the activities involved. It turned out that the process didn’t have standard input from the various tax-team members and would require work to standardize the input before it could be automated. Since the client didn’t have another process ready to go, we waited several weeks before we found another possible candidate. The moral of this story is: Have a backlog of process-automation candidates, preferably 10 or more.
As you begin analyzing the current state of your processes, you will find that, based on the automation platform used, some will require additional work and re-engineering before they can be automated. A solid backlog of other process candidates will allow your team to automate other processes, while the business team focuses on re-engineering the bad candidate. This won’t keep costly resources idle while the business scrambles to find new processes that could be automated. Once the bad candidate has been stabilized, you can go back and automate it. As you automate processes from your backlog, add more to it to maintain the flow of successes and obtain a faster high return.
#3 — Automating the Current State
Another client ignored my recommendation to re-engineer a (bad) process before looking to automate it. Instead, it stormed ahead, defining the functional requirements based on how work was done today and then began building the automated solution. After much hand-wringing and reworking and apologizing to stakeholders, the client realized its error and redesigned the process to take advantage of the automation platforms’ capabilities. Automating a bad process will only give you a faster bad process.
Automation platforms provide many capabilities that you likely haven’t thought of and many of the steps in your current state process likely happen as a result of broken tasks further upstream. Take the time to understand the current state and then redesign it to take full advantage of the automation platform’s capabilities before you begin developing the solution. Trust me: Even if it takes a few weeks to get through, it will be worth it in the end. It is very easy to lose the faith of stakeholders if you stumble right out of the gate. I once took a month to redesign a month-end close process from scratch that was based on the capabilities of the new automation platform. The result was an automated version that had not even been imagined. This success gave the automation team greater credibility and soon requests to automate other processes came pouring in.
#4 — Going It Alone
Almost all automation platforms these days advertise their accessibility to “citizen developers” – a cute term that implies that their tool is so easy to use that any business user can automate their own process. Don’t fall for this hype. While it’s true that business users could automate some things on these platforms, a) they won’t be able to automate the complex processes that will help you achieve your ROI target, and b) do you really want to give all your business users access to create new apps?
The good news is that many of the automation platforms are considered low-code and, in time, are designed to allow you to fly solo in developing your own automated solutions. Until you can do this, however, rely on a professional to get you started while your team learns the tool. It will be well worth the investment to have a team of experts begin creating automation successes while partnering with your team to teach them the skills they’ll need to go it alone in the future. In addition to the development skills needed to implement these complex automations, you also will benefit from a solid process engineer/product owner that understands the capabilities of the platform and can work with your business users to design a more sophisticated, holistic solution. A good process engineer will be critical in shaping the backlog of processes, strategizing the bigger picture to take advantage of synergies and enabling the development team to build more comprehensive solutions that will help you achieve your lofty ROI goal.
#5 — Business as a Spectator
A more recent client was having trouble implementing good automation results and was looking for my opinion as to the cause. After about an hour’s worth of conversation, we discovered that, because it said it had other commitments, the business was not engaged much outside of defining the initial requirements. Naturally, when it came time to deliver the solution, the business stakeholders found a lot of issues and modifications they wanted, modifications that could have been defined and delivered much earlier, thus saving a ton of money in rework and lost time.
Automation-solution development is not a spectator sport. It requires involvement from the business to be successful and any automation endeavor that does not have the support and involvement of the business is likely to overrun budgets, schedules or both, or fail outright. Almost all automation solutions are developed incrementally using Agile best practices. This methodology relies heavily on the involvement of the customer throughout the development process, from gathering requirements and grooming, to regular demonstrations, to user-acceptance testing. No matter the platform on which you decide to build automation solutions, if the business is not involved, you will likely not attain the cost savings envisioned.
Advancing an automation strategy is a well-advised goal that can reap a significant amount of benefits in both the short and long term. It’s a pursuit that can yield immediate results for the business and generate good buzz throughout the organization. Once successes are highlighted, requests for more automation will flood into the backlog and development teams will be busy for a long time. On average, a company that adopts automation tools will build about 24 automation solutions within the first two years alone. Such a promise of gold, however, comes with potential pitfalls that could set any successful team back and wind up wasting time, effort and money. Be sure to do your homework prior to selecting a tool and prior to starting development, and you should skirt most of the issues that have plagued less-successful efforts. Most of all, don’t be afraid to ask for help to get started. A good professional-services firm can help you navigate uncharted waters and get you going on your own in no time.