As CEO of a process documentation and automation software company, I’m often asked by management teams large and small: how do I know if I should automate? And if I do, when will I get the most benefit from it? Below, I’ll share six signs that indicate your team is ready to take the plunge.
Many companies struggle with the decision of when to embark on an automation project. For formerly-small, fast-growing companies, you’ve won so far by being scrappy and nimble...and most of all, doing things that didn’t scale. Mature enterprises have won by having established processes and people in place for complex business decisions and events. For the young, formal processes may feel too heavy; for those at scale, your team may say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” But there are a number of reasons why you might push forward anyways.
Those reasons are often catalyzed by a trigger event — perhaps your business is rapidly growing— and you have to figure out how to handle higher volumes without expanding your workforce (and costs) commensurately. Or perhaps you’re restructuring your workforce (due to work-from-home, a move to remote work, or on-shoring) — and trying to make things work better after the change. Or perhaps, like most companies right now, you’re facing a productivity imperative: find ways to do more, with less, and fast. COVID-19 has accelerated everyone’s timetables, with little regard for the old Q4 plan.
For these reasons or more, here are the 6 tried-and-true ways to know if you are well-positioned to automate.
Automation has become quite the buzzword, and sometimes companies toss it around as a priority without really thinking about the why behind it. (If you’re reading this post right now because your Board or CEO asked you to look into automation, you may know this all too well).
Like anything, good automation agendas clearly tie WHAT you want to do with WHY it is important. There are many valid reasons for wanting to automate (see above: growth, restructuring, productivity imperative).
The best automation agendas clearly outline what they seek to gain from automation. Is it time savings? Freeing up employees for more valuable work? Better customer experience? Faster customer response time? Scaling operations faster? Revenue growth?
Your answers might differ based on the specifics of the workflows you end up automating, but having a view of what’s most important will guide your approach to everything that follows.
Do you know what your team actually does? Simple question, oftentimes hard to answer. Most companies have a great sense of their inputs and their outputs. (I bet you could easily recite last quarter’s sales, operating expenses, and headcount). But do you know the specific steps of all the work that happens in between? What do your people spend most of their time doing? What are the core three-dozen “must-know” processes that power most of your business?
Maybe you do — certainly some of the management teams I meet have already completed the exercise to catalogue their workflows. They’ve documented their processes, time spent, and dependencies — and pretty quickly got a good sense for where the opportunities lie. With this groundwork laid, they can swiftly evaluate their processes when asked the right questions and identify where they’d get the most impact from automating.
Not everyone starts with a clear picture of their processes. Sometimes, a stopwatch, a clipboard, and someone who owns the outcome is all that’s needed. We often meet teams who have all the right reasons to automate but don’t know where to start. This is a good place to understand just how much opportunity automation can bring. (And if a clipboard won’t do the job — we’ve wound up building software to help catalogue processes as have a few other great vendors. Shop around and see what works for your organization).
Automation IS: a way to scale, a way to free up your team’s time, a way to improve accuracy and compliance, etc.
Automation is NOT: a magical way to bring order to chaos.
We built our stack to automate by watching teams work, and generating a program that replicates what they do. There’s power in that simplicity — the automation becomes what it sees — but it’s only as good as what you show it.
If your processes change every month, you are likely still figuring out how you want to actually get work done. You’re better off continuing to iterate on the how until you get to something more stable.
You likely have an established-enough process when you a) have a point of view on the best (or at least, good enough) way to do something and b) would feel great about it being done that way again and again into the future.
“You can only automate what’s automat-able” is tautological, but it’s worth expanding upon.
Processes are automat-able if they are consistent (done the same way, most times) and don’t require human judgment for all or most of the steps.
Most of your workflows probably do have steps that require human judgment — a human’s unique ability to express creativity, solve a problem, or build a relationship with a customer. That’s great. Your team’s goal — post automation — should be for ALL remaining workflows to require only human judgment. You want all of your work to require a trained teammate who has been doing the job for some time and has unique context and insight to make decisions.
Automation is about empowering these teammates to do more, and removing the rote, manual, and unsavory parts of the job that are better left to software.
I use a dishwasher at home — not for every dish in the kitchen, but for the ones that don’t need special attention. Your automation program should give your team the same relief.
The best projects to undertake are ones that i) provide better customer experience, ii) improve the work your team does themselves AND iii) have a clear projected ROI.
We find it helpful to introduce what we call the “automation quotient.” This looks at the value of an automation (How much time do I save? What upside benefits do I gain? etc.) compared to the time and cost to automate. Above some threshold, it’s worth doing.
AQ = Value (Time x Frequency x Value) / Cost (Time, Resources)
(Here at Cursive, we think a lot about the denominator in this equation — we expand access to automation by radically reducing the time and cost to automate — but that’s a subject for a different post. For now, we’ll focus on the numerator: finding the value).
Workflows have a savings value and an upside value. Savings is obvious — how much time you save is a function of frequency of task and time per task. It follows that you only want to automate something of meaningful scale (if you do something once a week for 10 minutes, it’s likely “nice to have,” not clear ROI).
Upside depends upon the workflow. If you are automating responses to common customer service requests for example, the automation might yield faster response time. If you are automating loan applications — it might be better customer experience during a stressful time. If you are automating financial reporting — it might be the benefit of having real-time data. If you are automating account reconciliation — it might be improved compliance and accuracy.
Sometimes early-stage founders reach out to us asking if they should start thinking about automating their processes. While it’s great that they are thinking about building technology in from the beginning, our response is often that it’s too early — their processes aren’t fully formed (see #3 above), and volume and scale are too low for it to be worth it anyways.
One important exception is when the workflow is a core part of their product offering itself (for example, an analytics company pulling data from third-party systems where they don’t have an integration). Then, it can very much be worth it.
While the above may feel like a lot, rest assured that I have yet to meet a company operating at real scale that didn’t find many repetitive workflows worth automating. The question becomes where to start and how to manage the change.
Change is hard. No matter how easy the software piece of automation is, it still means a human change for your team in how things are done.
Management is always excited about the opportunity to do more with less, but front-line staff may feel uneasy or uncertain about what it means for them. (After all, how many headlines have you read about automations taking away jobs?). Some immediately view it as a welcome relief from tedium, while others may hesitate to part with worth they’ve been doing for years, even if they don’t particularly enjoy it.
The best managers explain the reasons why they are automating (see #1) and tie it to the objectives for the team. Customer experience is our top priority; we are automating so you can spend more of your time customer-facing. Or our company is growing so fast and we need to up-level our team's ability to keep pace.
Even with the uncertainty of change — the good can outweigh the bad...by a lot. I knew we were working on something worth solving at scale when we showed a running automation to a member services rep (at one of our first customers) who’d previously been doing the painful work; her face lit up — and no automation brings a little tear of joy.
Know the why, know the what, have processes well defined — and message taking the leap to your team. If you enjoyed reading this far, join the conversation on Twitter (I’m @cursiveceo) or send us a thoughts on your automation journey ([email protected]).