If you can't work out how to do it on paper, what makes you think a new system will help?

In this blog post Adrian Reed explains why process understanding must come before considering automation of a task or implementation of a new IT system.

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What make you think a new system will help?

When looking to improve business processes and resolve existing problems, organizations and managers often look towards automation. In an office environment, this automation often takes the form of new IT systems that are designed to automate and speed up the processing of information that was previously captured manually – either on paper or perhaps on a range of dispersed spreadsheets and network drives. There are certainly significant efficiency benefits to be gained by ensuring that our business processes are supported by adequate and appropriate IT.

Yet a pitfall awaits the unprepared. It’s easy to get sucked into the draw of shiny new systems without analyzing and understanding the nuances of the existing process and existing business situation. There are so many compelling sounding technical solutions out there, it’s easy to get blind-sided by the sales-speak in the product’s glossy brochure. Perhaps you’re being offered a “best in class” solution that is described as a “highly configurable commercial off-the-shelf solution” or perhaps the vendor has offered to do “all the heavy lifting”? What could be better! The danger is that, without sufficient analysis of the existing situation, jumping on a shiny new solution can lead to a rather blinkered focus. It can lead to teams focussing purely on implementing technology rather than improving the business.

The need for process understanding: Warts-and-all

Before considering automation of a task or implementation of a new IT system, it’s crucial to understand the existing business situation, business requirements and the end-to-end business process. It is important to understand why the process exists and what it is trying to achieve as well as any genuine constraints and rules that need to be imposed on it. This can provide the valuable opportunity for challenging any old or outdated constraints that might still be reflected in the process, as well as the opportunity to consider whether each task in the process is still valuable and necessary. Additionally, it’s crucial to gain an understanding of the process’ ultimate customer – what do they expect or need this process to do, and is it currently doing it?

There may be several challenges along the way that make this improvement activity more complicated. If the process in question emerged organically (rather than being consciously designed), then there might be no existing process documentation. Even if process documentation does exist, it is quite possible that it’s out of date, so it can be extremely useful to investigate further and perhaps carry out analysis by observation. This provides an opportunity to understand and document the process which creates a useful artefact for future reference too. Creating this artifact in a common notation and sharing it in a repository will ensure it can be easily referenced and updated.

Consider multiple options - avoid ‘baking in’ the inefficiencies!

Once a thorough understanding of the existing process – warts and all – has been attained, then it is possible to consider improvement opportunities. However, thought should be put into all types of improvement – not just automation. This might involve anything from removing redundancy, clarifying responsibilities, right through to reducing the number of hand-offs. Automation is just one option. In fact, if you automate a bad process, you are probably just going to compound your problems – you might ‘bake in’ all the efficiencies. It is always worth thinking of process simplification before automation. If you can’t solve the problem on paper, it’s extremely unlikely that just introducing a new system is going to help!

If process simplification opportunities are found, it can be extremely valuable to pilot or trial these manually first and make any iterative changes necessary to the manual process. This will create opportunities for learning and improvement that can be taken into account if the process is subsequently automated.

In summary: Automation can increase effectiveness. However, it’s essential to ensure that technology is used appropriately in meeting the needs of the business. This requires a thorough understanding of the problem or opportunity. If it can’t be solved on paper, then it’s worth pausing and reflecting before investing in IT.

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