The blurring definition of waste in a 4.0 world – Part 2 of 2 – Robotic Process Automation

In part 1 of this series I took the example of Additive Manufacturing vs. traditional machining to explain the blurring definition of (Lean) waste and value. In this post, I propose another take with Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

With RPA, some tasks considered unnecessary and wasteful in the classic Lean point of view are automated to be done faster, more reliably and at lower cost. Automating unnecessary tasks is a cardinal sin for Lean thinkers raised in the 3.0 world! Yet with a deeper look into it, RPA may in fact be a good solution, avoiding to waste even more time, resources and money by automating those “unnecessary” tasks instead of trying to eliminate them, thus blurring the definition of waste and value. RPA could be Lean in essence…

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in a nutshell

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) refers to software “robots” that can be taught or programmed to mimic human actions like typing, copy-and-paste, open files, read files… do many tasks across programs and applications just as human workers do. It is especially suitable for tasks requiring no subjective judgement, that can be described simply.

The RPA software robot can be taught an entire workflow with multiple steps and switching back and forth among many applications, such as open a mailbox, finding emails with invoice attached, read the invoice check the existence of a matching order and copy-and-paste the relevant informations into the proper fields of the ERP.

Such automated process would stop and ask for human validation in case of deviations, inconsistencies, ambiguities, etc. Some more developed robots use Artificial Intelligence to learn from experience and improve themselves. Such robots would stop and ask for human guidance when confronted to something unknown or unclear, and learn from the inputs of their human mentors. Over time the robot will ask less and less human support as it has gathered knowledge and experience.

The workflow can be further extended to the automated payment of the invoice, provided all requirements are fulfilled, with or without human prior final approval.

Such a virtual robot executes the workflow about five times faster than its human counterpart, tirelessly, never being bored or distracted, around the clock, every day, error free and at a ridiculous low cost that it’s almost for free.

Automating low and no value tasks

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) vendors highlight the potential benefits by transferring the execution of mundane, repetitive, low or no value tasks to a robot, freeing humans for more valuable tasks, for instance interacting with customers.

Not only are human skills better used, but human weaknesses are mitigated: boredom, distraction, errors, mistakes, typos… with higher productivity and significantly lower costs. More than enough to sound like a bargain!

The traditional Lean Thinker would at least frown and raise Lean-legit reservations: no-value tasks are wastes that should be eliminated or at least trimmed down to the very minimum, not automated!

If someone is assigned to copy-and-paste informations from one data source into another software for lack of compatibility, try to fix the latter problem, not invest in its automation!

The 4.0 Lean Thinker, more familiar with IT tools, would recognize the ease and speed of implementing RPA compared to what would be required to analyze the problem and try to solve it in the traditional way.

A RPA would most probably be already running and relieving humans when the 3.0 problem solvers would still be struggling in one of the early DMAIC phases (I know, it can be argued if DMAIC is to be considered a Lean tool). The traditional Lean approach may even be inappropriate for tackling these kind of problems.

The 4.0 Lean Thinker would also understand that RPA is faster to implement than ask for software modifications. Such a robot is also easy to maintain and modify, much easier and faster than update software.

On top of it, RPA implementation does not even require IT department’s resources. This overcomes another common hurdle with IT departments, usually overburdened and giving low priority to change requests that are considered non vital, merely for users’ “comfort”.

Redefining waste?

The traditional Lean definition of waste is “any task consuming resources without creating value for customers”. In our case, the RPA-automated tasks add no value but cease to consume (costly human) resources while being still performed.

RPA is fast in implementation, very low (almost no) cost, frees valuable resources and capacity for more value adding activities. As such they consume no resources, thus do not qualify for being a waste according to the traditional definition.

It can be discussed if time is considered a scarce resource and as the execution time of those automated tasks is strongly reduced but not totally cut out. The process lead time still suffers, even in a lesser extent than without RPA.

On the one hand unnecessary and/or low or no value tasks keep being executed “for free”, and this should be challenged. On the other hand, RPA is a faster and globally better way to cope with these unnecessary and/or low or no value tasks.

Hence the questions: does waste need to be redified in the 4.0 age? Isn’t the definition of value and waste blurring in a 4.0 world?

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

One thought on “The blurring definition of waste in a 4.0 world – Part 2 of 2 – Robotic Process Automation

  1. Hi Chris and All,

    The REAL issue – regardless of any CONTEXT, new or old – is whether ANY activity is NECESSARY for achieving the desired outcome/output of a process. IF an activity passes that criteria, then it needs to be subjected to a further level of assessment in terms of whether or not it is VALUE-ADDING. Clearly, those that meet both criteria should be performed in whatever manner makes the most sense in terms of meeting and/or exceeding CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS. Those that are only NECESSARY, but are NON-VALUE ADDING need to be looked at very closely to determine whether or not there is some way of altering the process and/or product/service so as to eliminate the need for performing the activity.

    IF such a NECESSARY BUT NON-VALUE ADDING activity cannot be eliminated, then the next best option is to perform it in a way that achieves the lowest-cost, highest-quality, least amount of resource consumption possible. And in an attempt to achieve these conditions automation may be the answer. BUT, much depends on the cost of implementing and maintaining that automation… including considerations for process flexibility/adaptability/RESPONSE-ABILITY.

    Bottom line: Any activity that is NON-VALUE ADDING – especially those that are also UNNECESSARY – should NEVER be automated just because they can be. Doing so without sound justification from a CUSTOMER PERSPECTIVE is actually just creating AVOIDABLE WASTE. ALL Robotic Automation involves some degree of COST associated with its initial implementation and on-going maintenance. And the more FLEXIBLE/ADAPTABLE that automated functionality happens to be, the greater the COST is likely to be. After all, there’s really no such thing as a FREE LUNCH.


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