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Paper! The Arch Nemesis of Automation: 3 Steps to Automation

When I walk into an office with mounds of paper I literally cringe at the sight.  I think of clutter, the time needed to file, not to mention pesky paper cuts.  Overall I think of disorganization, how can critical items be found when they are needed.  Every super hero has its arch nemesis, Batman has Joker, Superman has Lex Luther and automation has paper.  In times past everything needed to be printed out, however this has now changed.  Today we can save digital copies of documents on our hard drives, flash drives, servers or store in the cloud.  We have so many options for storage.  There are two major reasons that paper fetishism is still prevalent today: fear and the lack of automated systems. The latter can be achieved with a tool available in-house namely Microsoft Excel.  When I review a client’s process for automation opportunities I usually go through the following steps: identify, investigate, and implement.

Identify – There are opportunities for automation in every office.  The process of identifying these opportunities can take various forms.  Initially, I focus on the redundant and time consuming tasks.  Usually those tasks, considered as drudgery or grunt work, are prime targets for automation.  While reviewing these opportunities, keep in mind the extent and reach of the automation tools that are available.  Constantly ask yourself: can this process be mechanized with the tools available?  Initiating group brainstorming sessions may yield some automation possibilities. No matter how outlandish the option may seem, write it down as a possibility. True innovation comes from doing what was thought to be impossible.  Another approach is to practice the age old art of listening.  I like to go in an office environment and be like a fly on the wall.  I listen to the communication between the staff and watch the interactions between man and machine.  Many opportunities for automation are revealed from these seemingly, meaningless quick interactions.  In addition, signal statements such as, “there has to be a better way to do this”, should peek ones interest as an opportunity for automation. 

Investigate – Dig deep.  Take a thorough approach and understand the pieces of each process. Vet the options presented.  At one particular company I wanted to automate the creation of the annual budget used by numerous departments.  I intentionally sat through the process for an entire year just to understand the pieces and make sure I did not miss anything.  For many organizations the stakes on new processes are high.  Go the extra mile to ensure that errors are minimized.  Don’t rush that step.  If errors arise later, you will know which step has been overlooked.   

Are the opportunities feasible, given current tools, expertise and other resources (time & money)?  Everything has a cost, whether it is done in-house or out-sourced.  Is Senior leadership behind the proposed options?  If not, should they be? 

Besides those internal questions which are rapid assessment tests on a project, external questions to Senior leadership, Managers, Supervisors, and Staff should be asked.  Ask questions but not just any question, the right questions.  Ask probing, open ended questions to learn more about processes, policies, procedures and even culture.  All of these areas impact the feasibility of implementing a new automation routine.  The most powerful open ended question in my opinion is “why”.  Far too often organizational practices are perpetuated and replicated for no other reason than “we’ve always done it like this”.  This constantly touted mantra can no longer lead our organizations. 

Ask the same question in different ways.  This may seem redundant or annoying to the responder but the value added is immeasurable.  Management Consultant Dr. Alan Weiss states in one of his many books that asking these series of questions confirms the response previously given.  Couple the information from these responses with observation. Policies and procedures are great, but very often they differ from that which is executed day-to-day.  The goal is to build a system that can serve the organization.  An Amish proverb tells the story of a man who was asked if he is a follower of Christ.  He responded by saying, “Ask my neighbor?”  His day-to-day actions communicated to those around him his true beliefs.  Who is the best to answer such a question, if not the one who observes?    

Include stakeholders during the investigative process.  This group has valuable insight to share.  Their thoughts carry large weight on the effectiveness and long-term use of any solution.  The White paper titled “4 Reasons Your Excel Reports may be wrong” available on www.excellentones.com explores this point.  During this process more opportunities for automation may arise.   

Finally, create a rapid prototype.  This replica of the final product can be used to demonstrate the feasibility and potential benefits of the final solution to the stakeholders.  Many times stakeholders have to be convinced that a new process will in fact benefit them greatly.  A rapid prototype can help them make the mental leap needed to understand that. 

Implement – The final stage is implementation.  This step is usually seamless if the other two steps have been executed thoroughly.  In this stage, it is common to include trainings and documentation before handing over the new system to the organization.  

Many functions in an office are still executed in an archaic manner.span>  The presence of large quantities of paper is a symbol of antiquated methods and opportunities for improvements.  The programming language Visual Basic for Application can be used to automate numerous tasks through Microsoft Excel.  Organizations can vastly improve productivity and profit margins by implementing simple automation techniques. Let us put aside our dependence toward paper with all its customs and move toward weightier matters, automation. 

 

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