• June 20, 2024

This is Part 1 of a series tapping automation expert Sam Best’s deep experience helping companies maximize the benefits of automation and RPA. Sam currently leads the Business Automation team at GM Financial and previously applied his comprehensive knowledge of automation techniques and technology for consultancy ISG and telecommunications giant AT&T. In this series of articles, Sam will share with RPA Today readers the expertise he has used to guide these companies through the challenges inherent in RPA from ideation to initial implementation and through full roll out. Part 1 details how to begin building a program from scratch, with absolutely no experience.

By Samuel Best, https://www.linkedin.com/in/bestsamuel/

Getting started with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can seem overwhelming. Internally you might be dealing with talent shortages or other various business pain points that need to be addressed. Externally, you have to vet multiple RPA provider and software options. It can be difficult to know where to begin. While each situation is different, there are principles those brand new to RPA can use as a guide. These principles, drawn from years of personal automation experience, can form the basis of a solid plan. Launching your first automation doesn’t have to be hard, but it’s not a walk in the park either and your success is dependent on your ability to establish and execute a plan.

Set Expectations

Before you get started with RPA, it’s important to establish expectations for what the technology can do and where it fits in your digital strategy. First, RPA is not an “easy button” that solves all your organization’s problems. Early sales rhetoric promised much: million-dollar benefits realized with only a few days of drag-and-drop bot building. And, it could be accomplished by any employee, with limited product training and no IT involvement. Right.

Thankfully, customers are now seeing through the hype—readjusting their RPA expectations and how the technology fits in their digital strategy. 

Think of it like renovating an outdated kitchen. To accomplish the project, you’ll need many tools to do the job. The tools work in concert, each designed for a specific function and are all equally important in finishing the renovation.  Likewise, RPA is a tool used for renovating processes. Its function is task automation, which is great for offloading mundane tasks from humans, but it isn’t the only tool needed to finish the renovation. To automate an end-to-end process, additional tools are needed for activities like unstructured data, managing workflows and assisting humans with activities in real-time. When used appropriately, RPA can provide great business value to your organization, but know it’s not the only tool needed for true process transformation.

Involve the Right People

To gain any sort of traction, it’s critical to involve the right people early. Involve too many people and progress will move at a snail’s pace. Involve too few and you’ll be lacking expertise to drive the initiative forward. To start out, I recommend a small, cross-functional team of five or less, consisting of business and IT resources. These team members are pioneers, responsible for blazing a trail leading to RPA viability within their organization. So, choose wisely and select knowledgeable members who share in the vision.

Define Success

Now that RPA expectations have been clearly articulated within the organization and you’ve formed a small but mighty team, it’s time to get started towards the goal of automating a task.  To do this, you and your new team will need to evaluate what’s important and establish a measure of success. Many early RPA initiatives fail because success criteria were never established. Please don’t make the same mistake. Specific success criteria will vary, but they should include clear statements around proving business value and technical viability.

Select RPA Software

After defining success, the team needs to select RPA software to use for the first automation. Be warned: this is where analysis paralysis stalls a lot of initiatives. In the prior step you defined success, which includes technical viability, so don’t feel like the selection you make here is a lasting commitment. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and experiment with different software, utilizing the free trial that many RPA companies provide. In doing so, you can document what you liked and didn’t like while gathering hands-on experience to take into building your first process.

After you’ve demoed different software, you need to decide which platform to use for the first automation. To simplify this decision, here is some advice: As an experienced practitioner who has personally built many automations using software from each of the “Big 3” RPA vendors (Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath), I am of the opinion that all three can automate the same process successfully, with similar results, in a secure manner that is scalable. For example, if you want to automate a process to upload Journal Entries, all three will be able to accomplish this task, but how the user accomplishes the task will be the biggest variant. This is yet another reason why it’s important to demo the software to see which user experience best fits your organization.  

Select a Process

After selecting software, you’re one step closer to having your first automation in production. But, now you have to select a process to automate. This is a critical task—if the wrong process is selected, it will derail your initiative. This sounds hyperbolic, but it aligns to a common phrase we have all heard: “garbage in, garbage out.”

To help select the right process, follow the 5 L’s:

  • Less is more – don’t try to automate a whole process. Focus on simple tasks with a low number of process steps and document the process steps at the keystroke level.

  • Limit application use – your first automation should not access a plethora of applications. Instead, look at tasks that, at most, use one application plus Excel or text files. This will decrease development complexity.

  • Lay out business value – understand the business value of automating the process.  Remember your success criteria; you don’t have to hit a home run, just make sure the selected process proves business value

  • Low risk – for the first automation, it’s best to focus on tasks that have low organizational risk

  • Look at process details – in addition to business value and process steps, evaluate process details such as volumes, upstream/downstream impacts, service levels, etc.

Build It

The time has come to start building your first automation. For developer selection, you’ll need a resource with development experience who is also an agile learner. There is a lot of great, free content available online that an experienced developer can easily absorb.

Using a process SME and the keystroke-level process detail as resources, the developer can begin building the first automation. Remember, the objective is to establish business and technical viability, so resist the temptation to establish and implement deep technical standards at this point in the process. No style points are awarded for pretty code, so as long as the automation is reliable and works consistently, you’ll have accomplished the objective. Once the automation has been tested and you have validated it is performing the process correctly, deploy the automation to production.

Congratulations! You just deployed your first automation to production and are now starting to see the potential. After you celebrate, you’ll need to document what you did and empirically show the business value that was created by automating that task. In doing so, you’ll lay the foundation for a business case showing how automation can benefit the organization. 

Check back on RPA Today often for the continuation of this series, An Automation Journey. In Part 2, Sam will explain how to pivot from pilot stage to scaling across the enterprise.  

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