The 6 Pitfalls of Business Process Automation

By Chloe Dervin, WebVine

McKinsey estimates that 25–46% of current work activities in Australia could be automated by 2030, helping to drive a renaissance in productivity, personal income and economic growth. Most organisations are aware of the benefits of business process automation (BPA) with over 80% of business leaders prioritising these initiatives but for every success story it seems there is a spectacular – or just disappointing – failure.

Where are these projects going wrong? WebVine frequently assist clients with process optimisation and have seen these lessons learned:

1. Fighting for priority

For many of us, the most difficult hurdle is getting a project approved in the first place. Internal enhancements often lose out in favour of customer-facing bells & whistles, or the relevant senior leaders may just not see the benefit.

Thinking more broadly about a BPA initiative can help you claim a greater impact in your business case. Are there impacts on other processes or teams? Will you advance progress towards broader digital transformation? Also consider intangible benefits such as employee experience and opportunities for value building rather than just cost saving.

If all else fails, is there a process issue that particularly annoys your potential sponsor? Fix it and show them how helpful this can be!

2. Developing to solve one business problem = technical debt.

Closely related to this broader approach to building a business case are the technical considerations.  Designing and building each solution individually results in a patchwork of workflows without underlying governance, management, monitoring or support. Although it may slow the first deployment, try to build the technical components of your solution to be re-usable across other systems and workflows. Invite people outside the impacted LOB to planning meetings: cross-departmental experience and insights will result in more effective and reusable solutions.

3. Digitisation vs Digitalisation

Optimise processes, don’t just digitise them.

Our consulting team recently responded to a client brief creating digital approval workflows for processes including expense approvals, site checklists and training requests. The digitised version of these flows still required actual digital signatures, forcing the approvers to find and log into a phone or tablet that could accept them. After process mapping and reworking these processes, we were able to reduce the steps by over 30%, improving efficiency and user experience.

4. …But don’t optimise them to death

It can be easy to get carried away with creating the sleekest, most perfect automated process but over-engineering can be worse than doing nothing. There will ALWAYS be exceptions to the business rules. There will be issues with hardware and backups failing and human error. Ensure the new process has a manual override and include a reasonable amount of process transparency so users can easily track progress and act accordingly. Make sure there is a digital “paper trail” or audit log to enable a post-mortem of issues if necessary.

5. Poor or non-existent change management plan

This one seems obvious but it’s astonishing how often change management is left to the last minute. Requirements gathering should not only involve process owners, engage users (including those who only see the process output) early and often. Listen to their concerns, action them where appropriate, and demonstrate progress. When you’re ready to launch, identify and support change champions to sell it in to colleagues, and remove access to old processes to prevent any backsliding. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

6. Forgetting to re-evaluate processes

Once your shiny new processes are in production and making everyone’s lives easier, it’s time to archive those project documents and move on, right? Sadly no. It is essential to establish good governance around process automation. Conduct annual or bi-annual process reviews to confirm process documentation, owners and accountability. It may be that everything is fine and your meeting is short. If not, identify improvements and get back on the priority line again…

Business process automation can be one of the fastest and most effective ways to boost productivity and simultaneously make people happy. Done right, there is virtually no downside. Done hastily or with insufficient consultation, it can bring down a whole department. This list of pitfalls is hardly exhaustive but may help to prevent some issues with your next implementation.  Happy automating!

Chloe Dervin is Co-Founder and Managing Director of WebVine, a technology consultancy that creates solutions on SharePoint, Microsoft 365 and Dynamics CRM.