What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

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 information 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.

Robot as your colleague

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.

What can and should be automated?

Regardless of vendors’ advertisement, every task or activity cannot or should not be automated. According to experts interviews and analyses (I have no shareable material nor reference for the time being), only 45% of human activities among those considered for RPA can be automated with RPA.

Besides, if ROI is generally very fast, all conversions to RPA will not pay off. Therefore, a comparison between the cost of building the RPA solution vs. estimated savings is recommended.

Best candidates in the first place are high volume, resource intensive, repetitive tasks. Typically data entry and back office functions. In order to further check if the tasks or activities you are considering to automate meet the requirements, following criteria should be considered prior to any RPA decision (the more checks, the better candidate for automation).

  • The targeted tasks do not require subjective judgement, can be described in simple rules and instructions.The targeted tasks do not require specific competences or authorizations.
  • The targeted activities are of low value. That means that the freed human capacity can be used to perform higher value tasks. Manpower can also be reduced accordingly to the share of low value tasks execution that is pushed to lower cost RPA.
  • The targeted activities require a significant share of human work time, thus are relatively expensive.
  • The targeted tasks are human error prone. Errors and mistake can have serious effects and are costly in time and money to correct and/or mitigate.
  • The targeted activities are constant or repetitive, will not disappear in foreseeable future, are not temporary measures.

More criteria may be relevant. Feel free to share yours in the comments of this article.

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!

On top of it, RPA implementation does not even require IT department’s time nor resources. This overcomes another common hurdle with IT departments, usually overburdened and giving low priority to change requests that are considered non vital.

Regarding waste reduction, RPA is not going to remove waste, it automates the existing waste. A frequent misconception about RPA. This waste automation brings the above listed benefits nevertheless, but doesn’t remove waste.

I discussed the Lean Thinker point of view about this cheaper and more efficient way to execute unnecessary and/or wasteful tasks in my post The blurring definition of waste in a 4.0 world – Part 2 of 2 – Robotic Process Automation

Reducing and removing waste, improving processes should be done prior to consider RPA.

About the author, Chris Hohmann

About the author, Chris Hohmann

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