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.