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How to Automate Business Processes

Hey folks! It’s another week and another topic related to systems thinking. This week we are going to talk about how to automate a business process.

I’m going to give you a framework you can use so that you can look at what you’re doing and identify where and how you want to automate processes.

Why Automate Business Processes?

Automation is the path to efficiency. It allows you to do more with less. If you want to scale your business or team, at some point you’ve got to start automating. For scaling to be done effectively, you’ve got to improve your efficiency first, and automation of manual or repetitive tasks is one way to do that.

Ultimately, gaining efficiency is going to lead to better scaling. It’s going to allow you to do more with less and get more out of what you have. It will help you build the business or team that you want to have.

Before You Think About the Tech

Let’s cover some of the pre-work you need to do before you get into the meat of doing the automation.

With New Processes

If you’re building a new process that doesn’t exist yet, start it manually as much as possible first. Don’t start trying to automate a brand-new process.

Lay out the process and the things that you need to get done. Lay out your desired outcomes and start working on the process manually.

You want to do this because, at the beginning of the new process, you’re going to go through a rapid period of change. You’ll be getting a lot of feedback from anybody and everybody involved. You’ll find that what you thought was the right way to do something needs to be done a little bit differently.

You need the flexibility to be able to change that process very quickly and if you implement a bunch of technology to do lots of automation, that’s going to slow down your ability to make changes to the process.

So start manual if it’s a new process. Do it manually and start fine-tuning it and once you get to a point where you’re not making frequent changes to the process, you can start thinking about how you can automate the process.

Existing Processes

If you’ve got an established process go through and do the documentation work to establish what’s happening today if you don’t have current documentation on the process.

When you’re working on the documentation, look for opportunities to remove waste or non-value-added activities from that process. Make sure what you’re doing is aligned to the desired outcomes you want.

Once you’ve got the process documented and optimized in its current state, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

Identify What To Automate

At this point, you want to start identifying what you can and should automate.

Look at what you’re doing and look for the pieces of that process that are good candidates for automation. Anything that’s done manually is a good candidate for automation. Anything that’s done repetitively is also a good candidate for automation.

Review the documentation that you have and identify the different parts and pieces where automation is going to save you time and save your business or team money.

If you’ve got existing automation in the process, look for ways to improve or consolidate the automation that’s already there coupled with the new automation you want to add. If you do this multiple times over a year or two, you don’t want to end up with a process that has a piece of automation upfront that’s done one way and a piece in the middle that’s done a different way and more at the end that that’s done a third way.

You don’t want to Frankenstein a process that’s got all these different little automation pieces. It will be very hard to manage and very hard to improve and adjust in the future to ensure it’s doing what you want for your business.

So if you’ve already got automation in the process that you’re looking to add further automation to, look for opportunities to consolidate what it is you’re doing and reduce the amount of tech and automation that you have in that process.

Identify How You’ll Automate

Once you’ve identified what it is you want to automate, the next step is to decide how you’re going to automate it. You have different options here depending on where your business or your team is at, the resources that you have, and the skill sets that you have on your team. Additionally, the work that you’re doing is going to have some relevance to the opportunities and methods available to you to automate that process.

If you’re looking at automating ditch-digging, your options will be different than if you’re looking to automate accounting processes in a retail business.

If you have existing software in your business, this is a great place to start looking. Many tools that are out there have automation functions built into them.

For example, many CRM (customer relationship management) applications large and small have automation tools that are part of the application. Apps like Salesforce, Dynamics, and Zoho have workflow tools built in that you can use to automate activities without buying anything else.

Look first at the software you already have and look at the automation opportunities that exist within that software.

Now if you look through your existing software and you don’t find what it is you’re looking for, the next step would be to look for new applications that will provide you the functionality that you need.

Applications For Automation

There are a couple of different types of applications. I’ll talk through each one at a time.

First, there are purpose-built applications that are designed to do one or more things specific to your business or team.

Here’s an example. If you are a restaurant or salon or any business that takes reservations, there is software that’s built to help you take and manage reservations. That’s an example of purpose-built software. It’s designed to do that one thing designed to do it very well.

Many purpose-built applications will help you remove some of the manual work that you’re doing.  If you don’t have software today, it might reduce manual work without any extra configuration and it will also potentially give you additional tools to build custom automations.

The second type of application that you should look at is automation tools. Automation tools are apps like Zapier, Zoho Flow, IFTTT, and Microsoft Flow.  IFTTT is an acronym that stands for If This Then That. These apps allow you to build logic, “If this thing happens then do this other thing over here.” They all work very similarly. These apps allow you to connect two or more applications so that you can automate data moving from one to the other or trigger events in one app when something happens in another app.

Here’s a real-world example. You can use Zapier to connect your email to your CRM application such that anytime you get a new email, you can trigger Zapier to go and look in your CRM application to see if that person exists. If they don’t exist, you can then use Zapier to create a new record for that person. If they do exist, you can update the record with whatever information you have.

There are thousands of applications that you can connect using a tool like Zapier and push data from one to the next or trigger events from one to the next.

If I get an email from a specific person, I could trigger events in other applications just by having a tool like Zapier in between to see that email and then take action.

There are loads of other triggers too, not just email. This means you can trigger actions off just about anything a connected app can detect like creating new records, updating records, adding a sale, and so much more.

Once you start looking broadly across a business and you’re looking at having processes that involve multiple applications, something like Zapier or any of its competitors will allow you to automate things very quickly and easily without needing developers or some of the more expensive options for automating processes.

The third tool that I want to talk about is RPA. RPA stands for robotics process automation. This is a high-level tool. What I mean by that is you’ve got to have some pretty good resources available to you to implement an RPA tool. The tools themselves are not cheap and maintaining them is not cheap either.

You’ll need access to technical resources to get an RPA tool functional, much more so than the other options for automation. If you are going to go down the route of using an RPA tool, you’ll need a developer that you keep on staff at least part-time in some capacity.

An RPA tool allows you to automate the actual work that someone does with software. I’m referring to the actual button clicks and filling in data into fields all of the interactions somebody has when they’re using an application.

An RPA tool is going to allow you to automate those interactions so that you have a “robot” instead of a person using the software. You can do some really cool things with RPA, but it is something that requires a sizable investment in resources and time to implement RPA in a business.

Implementing New Tools

Once you’ve gone through and decided how you’re going to automate, the next steps are dependent on the option that you picked.

if you’ve already got everything in-house then it’s just a matter of doing the work, managing change in your business, and delivering the new process with automation.

If you are getting new software to automate business processes, you should have some type of process to evaluate different software options, make a selection, and then go through implementing the new software in your business.

An Alternative to Tech Automation

Before I finish up there is an alternative to automation with software that you should think about depending on where you’re at what your business is doing, what resources you have available, and what’s important to you.

An alternative to building automation would be to consider alternate ways to have people do the work.

Now I know from one perspective, it might be confusing. We’re trying to get people out of doing this work. Think about it from a different perspective though.

One way to do this is through outsourcing. If you have a lot of manual work that is happening that you’re either doing yourself or you’ve got very expensive resources doing, you can potentially reduce your costs and see some efficiency gain if you can move it to a low-cost labor market.

The work will get done at a lower cost, so as long as you can maintain quality, you’ll get the same outputs for less money (gain efficiency).

You also don’t over-commit to a specific technology so you don’t have all of the spending that comes with buying and implementing software and maintain some flexibility if you’re still optimizing the process.

It’s a great alternative to consider depending on your circumstances.

Another option that you can consider in this is more useful if you have a larger team. You can look to bring in a resource that is a lower cost than the resources that you already have.

Here’s an example. If you’re managing a team of nine different project managers and need another project manager, you can go in and take the easiest 10% of the work that they are each doing. You could then hire a project coordinator to do the easier work. A project coordinator will cost half of what a really good project manager is going to cost.

Now you have reduced the cost that it takes you to do that work. Even though you haven’t automated anything, you’ve shifted work to a lower-cost resource and have kept your costs down, saving you money while getting the same outputs (improved efficiency).

Those are two “non-automation” things to consider on your journey to automation depending on what stage you’re at and what resources you have available.

It might be a better decision for you to outsource or change your team makeup instead of adding technology to your environment.

That covers the topic of business automation for today. As usual, if you have any questions, please reach out to me at brian@optimizeforoutcomes.com.

If you’re looking for help in automating your business or team, let’s have a conversation. Reach out to me and we can talk about how I can help you.

Thanks, and I will see you online.

Brian

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