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Great Partnerships: Lean and Automation

Some partnerships are so great that you wonder how they could have ever existed apart. Peaches and Cream, Holmes and Watson, and, of course, my favourite, lean and automation!

Since first piloting RPA (Robotic Process Automation) as part of a Lean Transformation programme in 2013 I have been a huge advocate of what can be achieved with robotic automation. Lean is a business methodology focused on customer value, empowered people, and waste elimination. RPA provides a mechanism to automate processes that would have previously needed people to carry out.

But what makes the connection between these two things so great?

To begin with the concept of continuous flow is at the heart of lean thinking, the idea of moving from step-to-step in any given process as quickly and efficiently as possible with minimum delay (maximum value-add, minimum waste). To achieve this automation is often a key part of the solution and lean practitioners are always looking to find new ways to automate tasks. In fact, from a practical perspective, this idea of automation goes all the way to the founder of Toyota, who used the term "Auton-omation" to describe the goal of automation with human intelligence.

Lean is often used to describe the function of continuous process improvement (kaizen). it is, of course, much more than just that, but from an RPA perspective (and I'm using the term broadly to include all the different types of robotic automation technologies available) lean provides the foundation of good process design before automation begins, eliminating unnecessary work developing steps in an inefficient processes. Finding a robust alternative to using excel macro's for this task was also, frankly, a great relief and fantastic addition to the lean practitioners toolbox.

One of the concerns frequently raised by increasing amounts of automation is the risk of loosing process knowledge and technical expertise as the number of bots increase and people with the process knowledge move into new roles. The application of lean tools to understand, standardise and fully document processes before automation begins mitigates many of these risks.

Another key benefit of automation is improving the quality of the end result, the starting point for many lean processes is to have Quality-Built-In, in other words to design a solution that is right first time, every time. Going back to my first exposure to automation in 2013, it was a process which duplicated data across multiple systems, and given the high volume of data occasionally resulted in errors being made. Correcting these errors often took a lot of time as they were never discovered quickly and would require checks across all the systems to eventually resolve. The redesigned automated process changed the sequence of steps to first validate the initial input data against Experian, once this was complete we were 100% guaranteed the correctness of data in all underlying systems. With this Quality-Built-In all rework (and painful duplication) was eliminated.

Another concept of lean thinking that made its way into general usage long before wider recognition was achieved was Just-In-Time (JIT), a concept where you have exactly what you need at the point you need it. For manufacturing this often means a piece of real equipment and JIT means having it delivered just ahead of when you need it, rather than the old way of tying up capital holding inventory in huge warehouses. For business services the same is true when data is required from multiple sources (the problem of multiple underlying systems is a common one), call centre agents are experts at keeping customers talking while they navigate through menus to retrieve data to respond to the actual customer query. Here is a second example of automation, given a key piece of information the automation retrieves the data from different applications presenting it to the call centre agent much more quickly than would have been possible to achieve manually. The agent has the information exactly when they need it, Just In Time. Sometimes RPA is described as taking the robot out of the human, removing mundane tasks to allow the agent to focus on the value add for the customer.

How often do you spend time searching for information? It could be in policy documents or FAQ's or held on a website knowledge base, this is an example in lean terms of motion waste. The act of using the information is value add, trying to find it in the first place is waste. Chatbot technology now allows for natural language understanding (whether written or spoken) to provide answers to these types of scenarios. Chatbots are another example of new automation technologies that are able to eliminate waste from a process.

There are many other examples of where lean thinking works well together with automation, trying to cover them all this article would become a book! I hope I have provided a flavour of the opportunities they provide together. Over the last few months I set about writing this all down and working with the the RPA Academy to create a new training course that everyone can use to learn how lean and RPA can be a terrific partnership!

If this has piqued your interest, but you're not certain, there is a free webinar to introduce the course and explain what I’ve learned; how to utilise both Lean Six Sigma and RPA to achieve the very best results. No prior experience of lean or RPA is needed and if you're still interested then you can also sign up to take the training!

One final thought on lean thinking and RPA to take away; Toyota successfully worked very closely with their partners to establish a win-win situation for all involved, recognising the different skills needed and collaborating to achieve the best result. A paradigm that likely applies to your own RPA programme too.

The team at Wzard Innovation can help you to start, scale and sustain your automation journey. Contact us on the details below to learn more.

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