During meetings, conferences and training sessions, I am often asked “What can we do to make business processes more efficient? What tools do we need and, most importantly, where do we begin?” It is an absence of answers, experience and motivation that form the greatest obstacles to progress.
In this article, I would like to share my experience of process automation. I am not going to describe how and which system I chose for document and process management. My goal is to share best practices on how to implement one and the methods to apply, as well as to offer practical advice on how and where to start the automation process. The purpose is to help companies experience an improvement in efficiency and make customer services, contract alignment, the approval of invoices and a multitude of other processes many times faster and more transparent.
1 – Knowing your purpose, needs and the benefits sought
I think it is almost impossible to find a company that would not benefit from the automation of processes. Take our company: here, it helped the productivity of our administrative work increase several times, with processes for agreement adjustment and the management of personnel documents becoming noticeably faster. Obviously, I am talking about the benefits of processes that have been successfully automated. Before any company accepts the challenges of such a project, it is important that it:
- Understands the inefficiency of its current situation.
- Is willing to change.
- Knows the outcomes it seeks.
- Begins by focusing on a single process that it wants to resolve.
The last point is the most significant, because the best intentions often remain at the level of thoughts and discussions. Where do we find the motivation to move ahead? You need not look far: changes could be encouraged by employees who want to make the most of opportunities provided by a document-management system (DMS). Processes that take place outside the company (such as the need to have an electronic signature) and a drive towards real benefits could also stimulate changes. For Avia Solutions Group, the stimulus for change was a desire to solve efficiency problems related to certain processes, as well as manage risks and exceptions.
2 – Appointing a project manager
Now that we have a goal, what next? It is time to find a responsible person. I need to make it clear straight away that it is not important who oversees the project: it could be one employee or a team. It is much more important that this person or group has an in-depth knowledge of the organisation’s operations, and knows the aims and needs of process automation and other factors involved. It is risky to choose the process owner as project manager, because their list of priorities will include the benefits of a functional subdivision or department instead of the entire organisation. For example, in the course of process automation we set up a separate unit under the IT department.
What should small companies do? I would suggest finding an employee who is willing and able to become a delegated project manager. Ideally, it should be a person with good qualifications who also possesses strong management and negotiation skills. Of course, these skills will also be acquired during the process, and the person is not required to know everything. Personal dedication is the most important factor.
3 – Determining priority areas
The moment that you start designing a plan for the automation of all processes is the perfect time to come up with priority areas. You will need to decide which processes you want to focus on first in terms of automation. I found the following two rules very helpful:
- Choose short, frequently recurring and simple processes. This will allow you to achieve early results with minimum resources, inspiring you to continue with automation.
- Do not force your way into areas with the highest resistance and/or lowest benefits from automation. These employees will join later themselves.
I would like to draw your attention to the fact that during later stages of process automation, you could encounter some of the following issues:
- The DMS is in order and processes are automated, but nothing is being used.
- The process is automated, but it contains errors (read below about how to avoid this).
- The company has only one non-automated process remaining, but its owner still opposes changes.
If you experience such issues, do not ignore them and ensure that you find solutions. Begin by clarifying the questions raised, and then move on to methods for improving the situation. For example, if employees are not using the system, ask them why. Perhaps the process is lacking a specific participant, or maybe this person is not trained to use the DMS.
4 – Handling obstacles and exceptions
One of the biggest obstacles we had to overcome was the scepticism of employees about the technologies and system implemented. In conversations about process automation, we heard the most negative responses: “No, this is impossible to achieve”; and questions such as: “What do we do if the system freezes?” and “Why doesn’t it work here and now?”. The main source of these questions is fear and natural resistance to change. Communication, transparency and the support of directors helps to overcome these issues.
During the initial stages of process automation, strongly articulated support from directors is a must. Directors need to prevent employees from going back to traditional document-management methods and exceptions, in which a DMS is not required. These obstacles can be overcome through risk and personnel management.
Another important aspect is the management of employees’ expectations about receiving everything here and now. They cannot expect the immediate automation of application approval, and that it will be automatically linked to the accounting and warehousing programme. Try to communicate two things to your employees:
- The benefits offered by process optimisation;
- That automation is a gradual process;
- What is happening at the moment?
Remember that a “No” from an employee may be about changes, not process automation itself. I recommend clarifying employees’ responses or legal aspects of electronic document management at the level of governmental institutions as well.
When faced with the fears and distrust of employees, it is the task of a person responsible for automation to explain how the system’s stability is ensured, who may join in, and how and where copies of documents can be made by those who cannot participate. When I managed to verify these aspects, employees started to display more trust and I received a green light to implement changes.
Another thing to note is that you will not find a single person at a company who knows all the specifics and exceptions of a document’s journey from point A to point Z. Your task is to find out all aspects of a process through discussions and surveys, describe them, and then transfer them into the system. I speak from experience when I say that knowing the obstacles and exceptions, and having examples, is probably the key part of implementing process automation.
5 – Making the entire process more efficient
I would like to encourage you not to attempt to automate processes in a way that means you remain where you were before. I know from experience that if you address an inefficient process using an ineffective IT solution, you will create double the inefficiency. Should we blame the IT tools though? This is why, before automating a process, you need to refine it, know everything about it, consider all exceptions, and discuss whether all participants are really necessary and whether there are any redundant steps. Do not be surprised if the refinement of processes takes as much as 80% of the time spent on automation.
6 – Measuring outcomes
All, or almost all, company processes are finally automated. What’s next?
- Next you should measure the results. Establish the real benefits created through automation. Maybe there is room for improvement?
- Publicise your success story. Think about how your experience could help others. If some processes in a company remain unautomated, a positive experience will provide an incentive for further changes.
- Continue to improve the automated processes. Remember that processes are constantly changing. These changes must be reflected not only in reality, but also in the DMS.