Employee Designing a Business Process on a Whiteboard

How To Get Started With Automation In Your Business

How to get started with automation in your business

In my experience it is common for business owners to run up against one or more of the following issues that cause them to delay the introduction of automation tools and processes:

  • The systems and processes that run their business are in their head or the head of one or more of their employees. There is no formalised list of how the business does the things it does, day to day.
  • There is such an overwhelming range of automation tools that knowing where to start can be daunting. Knowing what all the available tools can do and what job they are best suited for takes a lot of time and research.
  • There is never enough time available to sit down and plan what and how to automate because everyone is too busy doing the things they do every day to keep the business going.

Obviously, these issues are related.

Before continuing, I'll just define a couple of terms to make sure we are all talking the same language.

What is a Process?

A process is a series of steps or actions that lead to the desired output. This is what enables your people in your business to do what they do. Processes are everywhere in your business although they may not have been consciously designed and you may not even be aware of them. If you manufacture and sell products, you'll have a process to take material inputs, perform a series of steps to turn those materials into something else (your product) and the product becomes an output.

If a customer doesn't receive a product they've purchased from you, you'll likely have a customer support process where they can speak to a person who can perform the necessary steps to send the customer a replacement item (the output of the process is the customer receives the item they ordered).

A good process helps your people be more effective; they do the right things to achieve the intended or expected result.

Processes may directly involve your customer or they may be non-customer facing but still important to how your business works.

What is a System then?

For the purpose of this discussion, systems execute a process or processes. A system may combine, automate or orchestrate a series of processes to produce an outcome.

In the customer service example above, your business may have a chatbot on your website that serves as the first point of contact with customer service. If your customer indicates they had a problem with their order, the chatbot can automatically look up the customer's details and create a new ticket in your help desk system. The customer could choose to speak to a support person or the system could verify the customer's order (from your fulfilment system) and ship a replacement item automatically.

Systems help your people (and therefore your business) do things in the best possible manner with the least waste of time i.e. to be more efficient.

You may be wondering how this affects your business?

If Your Business Has Mature Processes

If you have taken the time to develop and document your processes, you may already have had a good look at the way you do things in your business. You possibly have already eliminated wasteful or non-productive tasks from your processes and have a high level of standardisation and consistency.

In this case introducing automation into your business usually starts with identifying high volume or highly repetitive tasks that make up a process and designing an automated system to do the same thing.

When augmenting an existing process with an automated system, we want to improve the existing process. This may mean performing the process more efficiently, more consistently, faster or it may just be that customers can get what they need any time of day or night because an automated system is doing it (and not relying on normal office hours).

What if you don't have this level of process maturity yet?

The first step is to set aside some time to identify and list (and preferably document) the things that your people spend their time doing during the day. Ideally, they are performing tasks that support your business but if you don't already have well-defined processes, you'll most likely notice that everyone is "doing their own thing". Without defined and documented processes, your employees will invent ways to produce the required results, creating their own ad hoc processes along the way. While things will generally get done, the result is inconsistency in your business. There's also a risk that if someone is absent for any reason, a critical task may not get performed.

Map Your Processes

The next thing to do is to use Post-It Notes, a whiteboard or an app like Lucid Chart to map out your desired process for each major task currently being performed (apps like Lucid Chart are great because you can use the exported maps in your documentation).

As you map each process make sure you take into account not only the desired flow and outcome (the so-called Happy Path) but also alternative paths and outcomes e.g. what happens if a customer wants something non-standard or how do you handle errors and problems in your process?  Every path needs an outcome even if that includes escalating to a person for resolution. Remember to update these process documents if the process changes so you always have a map of all your current processes. This helps when bringing new employees on and if you ever want to sell your business, these documents form part of the Intellectual Property of your business.

Once you've mapped your processes you can begin to automate them which is the topic for the next blog post.

People with devices and an illustration of automation

There's never been a better time.

There has never been a better time to automate your business

In the past you would need to make big investments in infrastructure (hardware) and software licenses and then run big I.T. projects to deploy your expensive software to your expensive hardware. Not all projects delivered the promised results and you were left with the management of the system, with associated upgrades (hardware and software) and licensing costs.

Today you can take advantage of someone else's infrastructure (in the Cloud) and compose enterprise-like systems from the best of breed Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings out there.

Using 'serverless' architectures and taking advantage of offerings such as Azure Functions or AWS Lambda Functions, you connect the SaaS applications you are already using, via their APIs, to compose a larger system that handles the needs of your business (e.g. your ONTRAPORT sales and marketing automation to Xero for your accounting).

If you add Azure Logic Apps or AWS Step Functions into the mix, you can create very powerful, very visual, workflow systems that handle a large number of your business processes.

Now, as usual, the devil is always in the details and you still need to develop some code, but the requirement for large I.T. deployment projects and associated investment is gone.

Another massive benefit is the billing model. With serverless offerings you usually only pay for the time your code is actually running (this does vary by vendor, plan and features used). Most vendors offer generous free monthly limits before the charging kicks in and this makes it a very economical way to build automation systems for your business.

I am very excited by these services as they allow even small businesses to take advantage of the Cloud's scale and compete with much larger organisations.

If you want to talk more about the possibilities of Serverless computing for your business, get in touch with me. I'd love to hear how it might solve a problem for you.