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Don’t get “locked-in” on legacy processes using RPA

What does the metric system have in common with efficient work-processes in your organization?

The US is one of three countries in the world that’s not on the metric system. OK, the fact that the US doesn’t follow the metric system is hardly a newsflash, but the realization that its companions in holding out were Liberia and Myanmar really got me interested. That was odd company. Further research into the topic led to the realization that the issue in the US was simple – it’s hard to quantify the financial gain of converting now.

This concept of the “economic lock-in” where the cost of switching (i.e. from the old measurement system to metric) prevents change, isn’t new. There are several forms of lock-in, including product lock-in (e.g. Google gives away Gmail free to lock you into its email standard) and  vendor lock-in (e.g. refer any anti-trust legislation). However, there’s a newer form of lock-in that’s starting to gain prominence in the operational back-rooms of organizations – work-process lock in.

What's Work-Process Lock-in? 
I define “process lock-in” as the state where the cost of changing old work processes to newer ones becomes too expensive. The phenomena may not be new, but the imperative to digitally evolve on the one hand, combined with low-training, easy(-ier?) to use automation tools like Robotics Process Automation (RPA) on the other, makes this an important issue.
This can be a potential big problem with RPA
The experience of enterprises that were early adopters of RPA has demonstrated that while RPA can provide a quick-fix automation to repetitive human tasks (e.g. entering the same data over and over again), it is prone to failure whenever anything in the system changes (e.g. the data inputs or the needed outputs). However, I believe there’s an even bigger danger if RPA is not used mindfully and strategically i.e. process lock-in.
To be clear RPA is an exciting and powerful capability that every organization must consider. It’s not the technology that’s at fault for failures, it’s the humans who use it incorrectly.
How to use RPA strategically
The answer to addressing this issue is three fold - 
A) Define end-state processes before automating: A recent EY report highlights how RPA implementations can be fraught with issues for some companies.
Ernst & Young's data indicates that 30-50 percent of initial RPA projects fail. The issues aren't necessarily due to the RPA technology, it is the company’s methodologies and misunderstandings about the technology that are at fault. (As I've discovered for myself at some cost at home, buying expensive home improvement tools don't compensate for the lack of a good plan on how to use them!)
B) Use design-thinking instead, for processes that need to be totally redone:  Certain work-processes need a complete redesign to support emerging business models or efficiency/effectiveness/agility  requirements. The old work processes in most major newsrooms were oriented towards a daily drumbeat to gather and curate news, page-by-page for the following day’s newspaper. To confront digital disruption, the New York Times (and other newspapers) had to redesign not just the user experience, but also the work process of making news available in real time. See attached…
C) Aim for ongoing continuous improvement, including planning for tools like process mining: The major trap with business process reengineering is that it can foster the mind-set of a one-and-done exercise. The experience of digital automation over the past six or seven decades has taught us that it needs to be more of a peel-the-onion exercise. As you streamline and automate one layer, it exposes other opportunities for even further improvements. The attached article makes a case to pair up automation solutions  like RPA with loss-identification tools like process mining.

Get the process to do process automation right!
When attempting digital transformations, it's important to get the old triangle of people, systems and processes right. True, exciting tools and technologies are often the catalyst of change, but they cannot replace the other two parts of the triangle. In the worst case, they can lock you into the wrong design long term, as with the case of the metric-system challenged Myanmar, Liberia and the US.

Go forth and transform.


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