Have You Done a Redundancy Audit?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to address something that is common with businesses of all sizes, types and industries. Chasing the shiny new project, product or service is exciting. In fact, it can reinvigorate your team, and build momentum for continued progress.

Clearing the deck for progress, doesn’t just mean establishing tasks, deadlines, milestones and holding team members accountable, it should include a careful audit of all the processes, tasks, and routines that your team is doing on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Further, once the audit is complete, it will be very easy to update periodically to ensure peak efficiency. Many would categorize this as a LEAN Management principle, specifically the “Sort” part of the Kaizen Framework – separating what is needed and what is not needed.

The great thing is that a redundancy audit can be applied to all functions in an organization, and for transportation it can be extended to the driver’s seat. There are non-value adding tasks being done everyday, and for those that want to profit more with the same overhead – this is a crucial step.

Step 1 – Make a List

Have your staff list all the tasks that they do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.  Ask the team to be specific as they can to best identify any unnecessary tasks and processes are being completed.  Conversely, this may be an enlightening exercise – you may not be aware of all the important functions a team member performs each day, week and month. However, be aware that the person doing the work may “hide” some tasks, intentionally or unintentionally, especially if they involve something they enjoy doing, or that have a social aspect to them.  These are areas where you may run into some resistance to your change efforts.  Consider the use of internal auditors, but keep in mind that people will act differently when they are being observed.

Ensure that communications about the process are kept up and ensure that the audit is not done in a bubble.  Ensure that people understand why this process is happening and get them to focus on what they will gain from it instead of what they will lose.  Ask the staff for input as to which of their items that they feel are redundant.  Solicit feedback as to why they feel these things are good candidates to be eliminated.  At the same time, get their opinion on how they could improve on the tasks on their lists as they may be aware of ways to improve performance that are currently outside of accepted procedures.  Reach out to your customers and see if there are any statements, reports, etc. that you are currently providing that they no longer need or that could be provided in an alternative format.  As an example, have your sales staff ask their customers if they are willing to go to automated invoices, or if they really want to get monthly statements.

Step 2 – Meet as a group to review and prioritize

Use the concept of “would a customer pay for this” as a starting point.  In addition, look for duplicated efforts in various parts of the organization – perhaps both accounting and operations are performing essentially the same task without knowing it.  Pay special attention to the reports people are creating as these are easily duplicated or are candidates for automation.  Maybe you have an underutilized customer web access portal that could eliminate some phone calls and generate customer value by letting them gain access to their information when they want it.  Be aware that some low value tasks or processes may have regulatory reasons for doing them – either for you or your customer.  These are items that you must ensure are not discontinued.

Begin with items that are being duplicated in different departments.  Put those to the affected departments to find a way to do the same thing in a format that all can use (such as reports). Next look for items that provide no or minimal value that will have a low cost to eliminate.   Lastly, any processes that will require major re-engineering or automation will require a full ROI and cost-benefit analysis before implementation.

The last step is to go back to the stakeholders and ensure that there is agreement on what the priorities are.  Be prepared to put your sales hat on, as some departments or staff members will have a harder time seeing the need to change.  Effort spent at this stage will get paid back easily during the elimination or implementation phase.

Step 3 – Eliminate

Focus on the low hanging fruit first – anything that just does not need to be performed or done in a different manner.  Then move forward using Cost/Benefit as your guide. Be sure to re-evaluate as you progress – did you eliminate something that a customer requires?  Be prepared to back track or re-evaluate how you implement the changes based on circumstances that will arise as you implement.  Somewhere in the process you are going to eliminate a report that someone really uses but did not tell you in the investigation stage.  Be ready to bring something back if this happens and understand that it could stay under the radar for a few months.

Step 4 – Repeat Quarterly

Keep in mind that situations, needs and regulations change constantly.  What is necessary today can become obsolete tomorrow.  Ensure that you take time every quarter to go back to this process and re-evaluate not only the progress but what else can be eliminated.  The team will find that in a lot of cases they didn’t eliminate enough as people will start to ask: “do I really need this, or can I get the same result from something else”?  If the answer is yes, then put that task or process back under the microscope.  In some cases, it may take several iterations until you get that process right.

The first time through the process will be painful.  There will be a lot of “that is how we have always done things” raised. People may resent or be fearful of the process as they will focus on what they could lose.  Get some easy victories first, show people the value of the process and you will see people really get onboard.  As you get into making this an ongoing process it will become a habit, and that is when you will really see a shift in the organization’s performance.

Manual Processes are Killing Your Business (slowly)

You’ve done it a thousand times. Walking through operations, you’ve asked yourself “Why am I paying these smart people to spend half their time doing mindless tasks and data entry? What if I could free up their time to allow them to do what they do best – solve problems. That would give them more purpose – that would give our business more purpose”. Ok, maybe you didn’t think those words exactly, but I can guarantee that if you’re a high-performing company, it was something along those lines. Although detention and delay times are the items with the largest targets on their backs with respect to operational efficiency, you don’t have to look to far for the next one on the list – manual data monitoring, entry and management.

We generate endless volumes of data each day in our dispatch and accounting systems.  Even more is found in unstructured formats, such as e-mails, and invoices.  Many paid hours are spent taking information from one format and rekeying it into one or more other disparate systems.  This duplicated effort is not only expensive, but it opens the (large) possibility of errors through typing mistakes or missed documentation.

The reality is, many of the tasks handled by our operations, accounting and customer service teams are repetitive and prime candidates for automation.  In general, any repetitive, rule-based task is a prime candidate for automation.  So why haven’t they already been automated?  Until recently such automation required a lot of expensive programming that resulted in systems that were not very flexible.  Simple upgrades of your dispatch system could cause the automation to fail simply by having a table renamed.  When this happens, your team must revert to the old manual processes until the programmer has the updates in place. The other reason is human nature. The growing list of portals and manual updates downloaded to today’s bus companies is like compound interest. It started with a work-around to make one customer happy and has grown exponentially to the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Web portals have become more common.  Documents such as invoices can be easily uploaded.  Documentation supporting additional charges can be transmitted, and many can log comments when further explanation is required. However, they can introduce other inefficiencies.  A human is still needed to transfer or transpose the information into the portal.  Errors are still possible and very likely, despite best efforts.  Depending on the internet speed where that employee is located, a lot of time could be wasted if your team member must wait for the information to get uploaded to the site and then wait again for the next screen to load.

The Institute for Robotic Process Automation defines RPA as “the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.”  In more practical terms, it’s software that you can “teach” to move information from multiple inputs to multiple systems without the help of a human.  RPA is designed to be deployed in days or weeks, not months.  It also does not care where the information comes from or where it goes to.  One of it’s strengths is that it does not rely on things like API’s to bridge into other systems or require complex programming to work.

Let’s look at a simple example that happens many times a day in your company.  A customer e-mails a charter or field trip request to your CSR team.  The CSR is constantly monitoring their e-mail for these requests.  When they see one, they are likely saving (sometimes printing) the email to get the request on file.  The CSR then creates the order and enters the charter details.  Once it is in your dispatch system, the CSR then replies to the original e-mail to confirm that the order has been entered and received.  Depending on how busy it is, each CSR may be doing many of these transactions every day.  Each of these steps could be automated by RPA.  The robot can monitor the email queues more efficiently than a human can.  It will parse each e-mail and pull out the new charter request information.  That data is then moved into your dispatch system where it checks availability and schedules the pickup date, time and location.  Because RPA is rules based, if there is missing information or any other exception, it will flag the appropriate CSR to handle it.  Once there are no exceptions, the system will generate and send the customer email confirmation.  In this one scenario you can see that the CSR will now have time to work on higher value-added tasks, likely making their work much more interesting.   The process will be handled more efficiently, and the possibility of errors is greatly reduced. The best part is you can implement entirely on your own, no need to get in the long queue with your dispatch system provider to complete it on your behalf.

So, what should you pay attention to when considering an RPA implementation?  A recent CIO.com article gave 8 keys to having a successful RPA implementation.

  1. Do the Research – Frank Casale, founder of the Institute for Robotic Process Automation & Artificial Intelligence, recommends that you invest the time to build a business case for RPA and learn about the products available. There are three key boxes to get success and only having two out of three will not work. The boxes include:
    1. Choosing the right technology solution to meet your organization’s needs;
    2. Creating a solid business case for RPA, including developing ROI metrics;
    3. Assessing current processes and organizational issues to avoid political problems. Keep in mind that RPA is a disrupting technology. People will fear that the technology will affect their jobs, possibly eliminating them. The human resources that will be affected are not going to be eager to train the robots that might replace them.  A vision and roadmap for the future needs to be communicated and it should include new opportunities for displaced workers. Managers also need to go in with open eyes, a cautiously optimistic mindset. Management of expectations is critical.
  2. Educate Staffers About RPA – It’s important to clarify what the technology will and will not do with regards to employees’ job roles. Many organizations use RPA strategically by helping staff do routine tasks quickly and efficiently so that they can spend time addressing higher priority needs. Determine how your company will use the technology and then honestly communicate what that vision is so that you get people onside with you before rolling the technology out.
  3. Determine Where the Technology Will Work Best – You will want to identify processes where you are most likely to see a positive business impact. Keep in mind that it will not always be easy. However, as the organization becomes more experienced with RPA, other processes will more easily be uncovered.  Many successful implementations are very selective as to what processes to automate – look for something that it repetitive and frequent.  Once you have achieved some initial success, fight the urge to try and automate everything.  If a task can not be done without a very limited amount of human interaction (preferably none), then it really is not a suitable candidate.  When picking your first process, remember that while cost reductions are important, improving customer experience is even more valuable.  The client experience is what will be your competitive advantage.
  4. Keep It Simple and Modular – RPA works best when it is not complex. As much as possible, keep your bots as generic, common and reusable objects. Mona Kahn of Fannie Mae recommends that you externalize all variables and logic to minimize failure points. This makes it much easier to update when something changes and makes it much faster and easier to test before putting the changes into production.
  5. Don’t Neglect Data Security – Make certain that processes can not be manipulated. Start with any processes that are business or mission critical. These must be secured before any implementation is attempted.  Regardless of how critical a specific task is, keep in mind that RPA will process much faster than a human can, so ensuring that a bot is secure must happen during the testing phase and this should be a show stopper if it is not secure.
  6. Test Implementations Regularly – Notwithstanding what we just discussed, testers can only try to test so many points of attack. Weaknesses are going to appear once the robot has gone live. Keep in mind that individual testers may not be as experienced with a process and may only be looking for positive results.  If possible, include the staff that actually do the task in the testing phase.  Additionally, test the automation on desktops running legacy systems to ensure that the desktop will be capable of handling the infrastructure requirements.  It is critical that you understand how different bots work together so that processes do not break.
  7. Develop a Cross-Functional Center of Excellence – By this, I mean put together a team that will share experiences and best practices to other parts of the organization. The idea is to leverage previous efforts to ensure that the wheel does not get reinvented repeatedly.  Make sure that both failures and successes are documented to make certain that the knowledge of those experiences is not lost.
  8. Prepare for Future Advances and Challenges – RPA is going to advance, and each company must keep up with the changes. Eventually, each organization will struggle with the management of the automation. End users will find ways to automate desktop processes for their own use, so understanding how the introduction, elimination or upgrading of enterprise applications will affect these deployed bots will become increasingly critical.  Like any other asset, bots need to be tracked and managed so that they can properly be maintained.  Consider what would happen if a password policy was changed for one of the applications the bot uses and how would you know if data is not being properly passed though?

 

So, what is driving the implementation of RPA?  The obvious one is cost reductions.  Forrester Research estimates that about 16% of US jobs could be replaced by RPA by 2025, while creating new jobs that are equivalent to 9%, meaning a net loss of 7% of jobs.  This is because bots are generally low cost and relatively easy to implement.  In the financial services sector, there is a major shift away from manual, clerical-type jobs and a move towards more analyst or advisory jobs.  The shift is being fueled by the vast amounts of data that RPA is creating, resulting in customers needing more human advice to help them process it.  In some cases, bots are assisting the human advisors by identifying patterns and offering options that the advisor can then present and explain to their clients.

There are several companies that have experience in working with our industry.  These include:

  • Kofax with it’s products that include Kapow, TotalAgility and Information Capture
  • Pega with it’s Pega Infinity digital transformation suite
  • Jacada with it’s Jacada Agent Desktop Automation
  • Automation Anywhere has it’s Automation Anywhere Enterprise Suite
  • UIPath – the UIPath Enterprise RPA Platform
  • Nintex Platform – utilizing Promapp, DocGen, Xtensions Framework and Hawkeye applications
  • IBM – Robotic Process Automation with Automation Anywhere

For those with an in-house development team (even a small one), building your own RPA toolkit and ‘army of bots’ is possible. There is even an open-source development framework to get you started. This Python-based framework – Selenium, is used by thousands of companies all over the world. Its worth examining if RPA is on your to-do list for 2019.

Any of the companies or open-source packages that offer RPA tools, can allow your company to achieve similar or even greater success. The key is to know what it is that you want to accomplish – without a defined project scope there is a significantly reduced likelihood of goal achievement.  In fact, without spelling out what will constitute success and how to measure it you are probably dooming the project to failure right at the start.  It also means that you are more likely to use someone or something other than the optimal solution provider.  Similarly, the management of expectations is another critical component.  Your people need to understand that it will take some time to optimize and implement these bots.  If someone is offering to come in and “have you up and running in a week”, be very skeptical and ask some very pointed questions as to how that will happen.  It is possible that they have extensive industry specific experience and have semi-customizable templates that can get you implemented quickly.  If they tell you that “customer service is customer service” then they probably are not going to work.  A quick example is with scheduling charters.  If an RPA provider does not understand how HOS can impact transit times, then they may program a solution that ignores the regulations.  A lack of industry experience does not have to be a deal breaker, but it will mean that your project team will have to spend more time and be more explicit in their requirements and specifications document.

So, in summary, some quick takeaways on RPA are:

  • Robotic Process Automation is a potential game changer for our industry, possibly causing a revolution in how we handle routine customer service tasks.
  • People are going to be afraid of losing their jobs when they hear the terms “robot” or “automation”. Expect that reaction and have education and communication resources prepared to help people get over those fears.
  • The potential for head count reduction is there, but it should not necessarily be the driving force behind this initiative. It is more likely that you will be able to handle more productivity out of the same number of people.
  • Do not treat automation as an ad hoc process. Have some form of control over where bots are implemented and try to use common programming as much as possible. This will allow you to know what needs to be updated when other systems are upgraded.  Additionally, it will greatly reduce the time needed to develop fixes when problems arise.
  • Start with processes that occur regularly so that you have a few highly visible wins to the start of the project.
  • Expect there will be setbacks. Many of these processes have dependencies and it only takes one to cause a failure. Involve the people who currently do the job in the testing phase.  They will have seen the process breakdown before and can offer insights as to where to challenges may come from. This in turn will allow for more robust testing pre-implementation.  It will also increase the acceptance of RPA as they will have some say in how it is implemented.
  • RPA is not a magic bullet. Managing expectations is critical. Exceptions are going to happen. Some processes will consider having 40 to 50% of appointments scheduled by the bot a success.  Other processes may achieve closer to 95%.  Some processes may require human interactions.  Your team needs to be prepared for these to happen.  At the same time, let them know what that 40% means in terms of freeing up time to handle their other tasks that might be getting pushed off to the side.

Succession Planning – Is Your Bench Ready to Step Up?

Scenario #1 – It’s a sunny afternoon, and you are sitting in your office working on a presentation for one of your major customers that you are meeting next week regarding some new routes.  The phone rings, you answer it and it’s the OPP.  Your major accounts salesperson has just been in a horrific accident on the 401 and is being airlifted to the hospital.  The officer asks for family contacts as it’s not looking good.  As you go through your contact list you get a nasty feeling in your stomach.  You were going to be meeting with Jody later today to go over strategy and review some data that she got from the customer this morning.  She has been hands-on with this customer and has a lot of information that no one else has.

Scenario #2 – You are about to board a plane to come home from meeting another of your important customers when your VP of Operations calls you.  Joe, your Operations Director for the GTA got into another argument with the VP and has just quit with no notice.  One of your seasonal customers has just started to ramp up their tour season and Joe was arranging the coaches to service them.  Joe was an “off the cuff” sort of guy, and none of his ‘plan’ was written down.

Both scenarios are exaggerated, but they do represent real and persistent risks that all businesses face – what to do if a key employee leaves, or is incapacitated?  Who would you move into their place? What training would they need?  What information gaps will result?

Succession Planning is a strategy that you have in place for when employees leave or retire.  This plan looks at both expected and unexpected departures, and the aim is to ensure that no significant expertise or leadership is lost upon their departure.  A key aspect of the plan is to identify high-potential employees, who appear to be a good fit for grooming into a leadership role.  A second key aspect is a training and mentoring plan to evaluate and nurture their skills so that an easy transition can occur when needed.

For your less-senior employees, a succession plan offers them an excellent professional development plan, that will enable them to learn and grow with your organization as they train for future roles.  By bringing these new faces into the management realm, you will bring in a new set of experiences and perspectives into the decision-making process.  This diversification helps your company set itself up for further growth.

There are a number of frameworks available to assist in creating a succession plan, but Teala Wilson of Saba Software has proposed one of the more flexible ones:

  1. Establish measurable goals to guide the succession planning program. Make sure that these measurements are aligned with the organization’s strategic goals.
  2. Re-calibrate succession planning program goals on an annual basis. This allows for changes in personnel as well as the changing market environment.
  3. Prepare current job descriptions so that the work to be performed is clear.
  4. Prepare competency models by level on the organization chart. Requirements need to be objective, clear and measurable.  This is the time to look at what future competencies are required to achieve future strategic goals.
  5. Carefully define the roles to be played by each key stakeholder group in the succession planning process. Keep senior managers and stakeholders engaged in the process by establishing clear and measurable accountabilities.
  6. Establish talent pools by level based on the strategic strengths of the organization.
  7. Take an inventory of your talent. Ensure that individual strengths and areas for improvement are recognized.  Do an organization wide SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to look for gaps in bench strength that will need filling either within or outside of the organization.  Do these reviews on a periodic basis to ensure that no new gaps have developed.
  8. Evaluate the entire succession planning program on a regular (usually annual) basis. Compare the measurements against the stated goals to guide where you need to focus on.

Once you have this framework in place, you will then start to determine if you have capable (and willing) internal candidates that can be groomed for future advancement, or if there are areas that you need to go outside of the company.  Where possible, going with an internal candidate is the ideal choice – they already are familiar with your business and it generally is less costly to train and develop from within, than it is to go through the process of doing an outside hire and then getting that person up to a competent level of performance.  There is a risk that someone you groom may leave before you can move them into a higher position, but through proper management of expectations you should be able to create an increased sense of loyalty that will help with retention.

When looking at candidates for inclusion in this program don’t just take the easy path and target only your current high performers.  Look at each individual and determine what their future potential is.   As an example, just because Jim is your best sales rep does not mean that he would be your best candidate for a sales manager role.  Becky may have a more average sales performance but may have a better personality fit to coach and lead your sales staff.  Look for people who are clearly in the wrong role (based on education, personality, etc.) and consider them for a hybrid role that could pave the way for an increased leadership role.  Take the time to identify the potential within your organization, and then develop a plan to tap into it and better leverage your existing talent.

Finally make sure that there is buy-in for this program at the senior level.  Nothing will derail this program faster than upper managers not participating fully in it.  Some may see this as an exercise in pushing themselves out of a job.  Ensure that there is a clear link between this program and the company’s strategic plan, with flexibility built-in to balance the long term and short-term goals.  By working this process into your current hiring process, you will ensure that you are getting the candidates that you need in the future, not just a “good enough” for today’s need.  The recruiting process is expensive, and this process will give you the tools to be more effective with bringing on new people. Take time away from your whirlwind – short term pain = long term gain.