RPA implementation: Learning from the past?

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Although Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a technology is relatively new, the concept of having automated processes that are managed by humans is not.

And indeed, many organisations already have experience of successfully integrating automation in to their processes in a systemic way.

In automotive manufacturing, the integration of automation in to processes is something that has been prevalent since the inception of production lines.

The word Autonomation was derived to describe the way in which manual processes can be changed, to not only incorporate varying levels of machine automation, but to also detect defects and force resolution from countermeasure through to root-cause closure. This hints at the need to plan how the machine and the human will work in tandem.

Automation has been a significant part of improving productivity since the industrial revolution, and it seems logical that it should be viewed as one component of a greater systemic approach to delivering value.

The Toyota Production System (TPS) is arguably the most successful and well-researched example of a systemic approach to delivering customer value at scale, and, significantly, attempts to replicate the TPS in different geographies have had mixed results. Where the attempts have been unsuccessful, integration is often a key theme.

With specific reference to automation, in Dynamic Manufacturing, Hayes, Wheelright, and Clark state, “the equipment, or hardware, by itself is rarely the primary source of a factory’s competitive advantage. What matters is how that hardware is used, and how it is integrated with materials, people, and information through software – the systems and procedures that direct and control the factory’s activities.”

So, there is evidence that large organisations have successfully integrated automation to serve the customer and improve productivity, but it appears that a prerequisite to success is in the planning and implementation to ensure that the technology is part of a wider operating system.

And even before the planning stage, an organisation needs sufficient understanding of the new technology to feed the inspiration and ideation stages prior to filtering out the most valuable opportunities. This leads to questions around readiness for automation, and certainly readiness for automation at scale. For RPA, as one automation solution, scale is typically required to see a return on the investment.

Considering the above may prompt us to take a step back when planning our RPA journey, and should focus the mind on the related Change Management aspects. Taking Hayes, Wheelright, and Clark’s statement as above, arguably, most of the effort to successfully embed and sustain any automation initiative is beyond the pure technical elements.

What practical take-aways are there here then? Certainly, the TPS and related Lean manufacturing philosophy holds a wealth of knowledge around the dos and don’ts of establishing automation; documented approaches already exist for designing the work of the machine and the human and matching capacity to customer demand.

Take advantage of this by engaging Lean practitioners as part of your RPA journey. Striking the right balance between experimenting with the technical aspects of automation and conducting a thorough Change assessment is also crucial; the Change assessment should point to where people, process, policy, and information items need to be fixed before considering the introduction of automation technology.

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