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The Pros and Cons of Process Automation

Automation in and of itself is not necessarily efficient or even the right choice for your business or organization. The choice to automate a given process or task should always go through at least a basic decision tree, weighing the known benefits and costs. Some of the main pros of automation include the following:

  • At scale, process automation can eliminate the need to hire new administrative employees at significant cost savings.

  • Automation eliminates human error.

  • Process automation lends itself to removing the most boring, busywork tasks. This frees up your workforce to tackle tasks that humans do better than computers.

Whereas some of the cons include the following:

  • Implementing most automations requires some degree of technical assistance, or at least familiarity.

  • Process automation is by definition change, requiring change management.

  • Each new automation requires a Quality Assurance (QA) process, which takes varying degrees of effort and time.

    You need to make sure the outputs of your automation are the same as (or better than) your current human-driven efforts. The last thing you want is to discover in six months is that your automated customer service system hangs up on people who press 2!

Documenting the current process

The first step in automating anything is ensuring that you have a crystal-clear understanding of how it works in its current incarnation. This helps you understand what parts can be automated and what shape an automation may take. Much of this step can be handled by hunting down inefficiencies in your organization.

If you follow the Lean strategy and have constructed a value-stream map — a literal, visual map showing how inputs like orders or leads make their way through your organization, ultimately transforming into the end product — then that map doubles as a treasure map for process automation opportunities.

To construct your treasure map, the simplest and most direct way is to walk through the process yourself. (Ideally, find two people to walk through separately, under the assumption that one may pick up on a step the other misses.) Follow the process at every step, documenting exactly what transformations the initial input must go through, who touches it, what it waits for, and so on, in order to become the final product.

Pay particular attention to the seven wastes of Lean (overproduction, waiting, transportation, unnecessary processing, unnecessary inventory, excess motion, and defects). These are generally ripe for automation.

At every single step — no matter how seemingly insignificant or quick — in the process, ask the “5 Whys.” Why is this step here? In response to the answer, ask “Why?” Repeat five times. This helps you determine if you can potentially do away with the step altogether (perhaps because it’s a legacy remainder for a previous process — you’d be surprised at how many of these hang around!), or if you can automate some or all of it.

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