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Get Disruption Ready: Process Improvement & Automation

“Automate everything.”

Organisations looking to get the edge on competitors or disrupt a market look at ways of automating business processes to reduce people costs, and shorten the time between customer interest and invoice paid. For existing processes, automation platforms and systems can make them less people-intensive. But what about the processes themselves – are they actually the most sensible way to deliver?

In this post in our blog series covering Corporate Capabilities for Disruption Readiness, we’ll cover processes – their re-design, development and automation – and how these work with other capabilities we’ve covered in the series: becoming customer centric, becoming data driven and enabling innovation.

Some processes may have their origins lost in the mists of time, developed before those who currently follow them were around. It’s not uncommon to have a process which seems convoluted, and yet is ‘just the way we do things’. A wide range of tooling is available to automate processes, but there is also an opportunity to re-think a process before automating it. A process once automated is actually harder to change, because re-automation requires it to be paused, and this can break workflows. A range of business process re-engineering tools and methodologies can be used to significantly change up the way a business process proceeds through an organisation, before automation is considered. Some of these include design thinking, customer journey mapping, and lean process design.

The market leaders have often innovated their business processes around the customer experience and delivered a smoother, faster experience for the customer, while doing so at a lower cost. Heavy automation of the highly repetitive steps of a process makes the cost of scaling up marginal, and removes the friction for growth. Integration of the automation with other parts of the customer journey, such as on-boarding and invoicing, can make for a relatively low-touch customer lifecycle which enables low friction growth. In some cases, convoluted and highly customised delivery of products or services have given way to simpler, cheaper offerings that disrupt a market with speed, lower cost, and higher customer satisfaction.

So how to begin? The main thing is to consider business processes you follow as core Intellectual Property, which is up for re-design. Like the engine in a car, tuning processes for better performance can make significant difference to growth. Then, you can go about considering the enabling platforms in digitising processes and integration with other systems. 

When assessing your processes for automation, think about these aspects:

  1. Consider the customer. Having the customer represented while a process is being re-thought can bring a perspective that results in fewer ‘handoffs’ – where a process moves from one function to another. Where it’s necessary for a process or customer to travel between functions, integration platforms can provide a smoother journey that carries the relevant information from one stage to the next. Ever had a call from a service provider, asking you for details you already provided? Avoid this! 
  2. Is the product or service right? You would be familiar with the restaurant providing hundreds of dishes to choose from. While it is true a chef would be able to deliver them all, having the ingredients pre-prepared, assembly and serving down pat and able to roll out quickly in busy peak times is extremely hard with a wide repertoire. Given speed and quality are more important to many diners than a wide choice – given they can choose between restaurants anyway – simplifying the menu to a small number of easily repeatable items results in a better outcome. Too much choice in a time-poor world presents an opportunity for fatigue or confusion for customers. An 80:20 rule is not uncommon: 80% of customers take 20% of the effort to deliver for, while that last 20% require 80% of the effort – usually because of customisation or manual steps that have been introduced to close that ‘strategic sale’. Time to jettison these on the way through.
  3. Is it onerous, just to handle edge cases? Some organisations will have a process that appears a bit strange when considered in light of most cases; but they are that way because of ‘that one time it went wrong’. Risk mitigation is important, but if a solution makes everyone’s experience slower and more onerous, it is rarely a good thing. The exception to this is regulation, which is sometimes conceived in a vacuum from actual business practices and hard or onerous to implement. Even so, automation can provide relief here – a good recent example is the automation of identity checks for on-boarding with neo-banks, which have reduced the ‘customer 100 point check’ process from a time-consuming visit to a branch to a few moments inside an app on-boarding process.
  4. Can it be automated? A classic trap for an organisation in its formative stages is to wave through a manual process on the basis it will be ‘fixed up later’ – just in order to get revenue in the door. Experience shows that once the business starts to succeed and scale, the worst growing pains come from manual processes that can’t easily scale. If the right balance of automation and simplicity is struck in the early stages, scaling becomes easier later, and it also comes at lower cost because more customers doesn’t mean more staff (at least not in a linear fashion). Those organisations who have mastered this at huge scale have highly automated processes that don’t require a lot of people power to grow.
  5. Can the customer do some of this themselves? Although it’s often considered through the lens of customer experience, a process that relies on customer input can be made a lot smoother if the customer is able to interact with the automation directly, at the appropriate time – providing details or approving a step – than one which requires a pause to liaise over email, phone or through a ticketing system. It’s a much higher quality experience for the customer to be prompted and to then easily provide approval or data to allow the next step. Better yet, it may not require any people on the back end at all.
  6. Can we easily improve this process in future? Going through a process improvement cycle is rewarding, though it may be arduous and take a long time to get right. While re-considering the steps of a process from the customer lifecycle perspective, each of the solved steps may require future refinement, removal or different automation. The aspect of continuously measuring and improving process efficiency should drive ongoing tweaks and improvements – always delivering a faster outcome, automating a new step, leveraging a new system or technology, or changing with customer demands. The ability to continuously improve a process should be baked into its design from the start – and may mean automating it in a modular way to enable parts to be changed or updated without having to redesign the whole thing.

When implemented alongside the other corporate capabilities, a mindset of constant process improvement can be partnered with these capabilities to deliver improved customer experience, better decision making and an agile, constantly improving organisation with a dynamic and exciting culture.

Anthony Woodward is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Accelera