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June 4, 2020 Article 4 min read

Organizations around the world are tightening their belts, trying to get more done with less. Now, you can program a virtual robot to do higher-quality work faster, freeing up resources to use elsewhere. Welcome to the future.

Factory worker inspecting robotic machine/arm in the factory floor.As the COVID-19 outbreak pushes your already-tight budgets to their limits, you may be looking for ways to get more done with fewer resources. Now, there’s a tool that can do it for you. Robotic process automation (RPA) is software that allows you to create a virtual robot to take over electronic tasks you’d normally have people do. It can help decrease processing costs, reduce human error, and increase data accuracy. Think of it as a digital worker — you tell it what to do once, and it does it for you going forward, freeing your people up to do other more important activities.

If you’ve used an Excel macro before, then RPA will seem familiar. In both cases, you program it to perform functions so you don’t need to do them manually. The key difference is that the macro stays in Excel while the RPA bot uses much more flexibility — you can program it both to navigate the various systems that you use and to do tasks for you.

Let’s say you’re a collections manager who tracks aged AR closely and needs to be notified of newly aged accounts. Unfortunately, your ERP system doesn’t have a canned report for this, and your vendor hasn’t created one. To compensate, your bookkeeper must review AR daily, look for accounts 30 or more days past due, input the information into a spreadsheet, and send that report to you via Outlook. This doesn’t require much thought for the bookkeeper who follows the same steps every day and delivering the information to you. A bot can be programmed to mimic the bookkeeper’s actions and perform this routine task daily, and your bookkeeper’s time can be spent on value-added activities.

Lots of other activities are ripe for automation. The trick is to look at processes that fit certain criteria, including:

  • Rule-based processes that can be broken into if-then statements to which you apply rules, thresholds, or standards.
  • Manual and mundane processes that require several steps but don’t require interpretation, education, or cognition.
  • High-volume processes or those that occur frequently. Although you can automate low-volume processes, doing so is unlikely to be a worthwhile investment.
  • Routine processes that are predictable and could be automated to run unattended without requiring a user to initiate the process.

Robotic process automation saves time and reduces waste

If you’re familiar with the Lean seven forms of waste, you probably already see how RPA can help establish process flow. It does so by:

  • Avoiding defects. Humans make mistakes. Your bot will only make the mistakes that you tell it to make, and it will do so with 100% consistency. This makes it easy to spot errors in programming so you can correct them.
  • Reducing inventory. In your office, inventory includes anything in your inbox that’s awaiting processing. Your RPA assistant can take care of the inventory automatically, or you can trigger it to act.
  • Eliminating over-processing. We often see our clients taking 10 steps to accomplish what they could do in six. By initiating process improvement prior to programming a bot, you can maximize the efficiencies of RPA.
  • Reducing motion. Usually, we think of motion as moving from place to place. In a desktop environment, motion includes moving your cursor from place to place as you open various applications, tab through fields, copy data, and paste data into other applications.

Is RPA too good to be true?

RPA isn’t a silver bullet or a magic wand. It won’t solve all your process problems, and it should only be used for its designed purposes. However, if used in the right way, RPA can help improve efficiency for your organization and reduce the cost of important processes. Before turning to RPA as a solution, you should be aware of its shortcomings, for example:

  • Your bot is static. It won’t evolve when things change. If you get an upgrade in one of your systems, it may impact how data fields are defined, and your bot may not know where to look for the right data. You’ll need to do some reprogramming when changes occur.
  • It may require programming expertise. There are many products you can use, and some require minimal programming expertise while others require more. Some vendors offer free training so developing skills may be manageable. Look for the tool that best fits your organization and its skill set.
  • Pricing models vary considerably among vendors. Conducting a cost benefit analysis for target processes will let you know whether RPA is worth the investment.

Next steps for implementing RPA

If you’re thinking about RPA, we recommend that you target one process, test it out, and apply what you’ve learned to the next process. Start by taking inventory of all your processes and use the criteria above to sort by what will give you the biggest return on investment. Improving the process before programming the bot will help make sure that less maintenance is required down the road. Once you demonstrate success, you’re likely to generate interest from the organization in finding other processes to automate.

For a truly successful enterprise-wide deployment, consider creating a change management plan. New or unfamiliar technologies, when first introduced, can be met by staff with resistance and even fear. A proper introduction and adaption plan can mitigate these issues and allow RPA to gain traction within your organization.

The benefits of RPA are hard to ignore, when implemented with the support of a process inventory and change management plan. With this in mind, ask yourself if your organization is ready to start its RPA journey. If you need help, give us a call. 

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