RPA and Lean, A Must

I have read a number of papers and articles on the reasons RPA projects struggle or fail and have personally witnessed a number of struggling RPA initiatives.  For anyone that has seen a mature RPA tool in action, you will be surprised to hear that failure numbers as high as 50% are being reported.  RPA tools are very easy to use, lightweight on the network, and easy to adjust as needed.  I have seen very capable RPA bots built in less than a day and complex bots built in a couple of weeks.  So why are so many RPA initiatives struggling?

One of the key reasons for RPA project struggling and even failure is a lack of true process expertise.  Process expertise is needed in the assessment, design, and implementation of bots.  It is also needed for the bot building process itself.  To solve this problem, enlightened organizations are adopting the proven methods and principles of Lean.

In this article, I provide a quick overview of the Lean principles that apply to RPA and how, along with a glimpse into the powerful body of knowledge MSI has developed in our Lean Automation practice.

Lean Facilitation Skills: A true Lean Master has conducted dozens and sometimes more than one hundred Lean process events of various types from Lean Strategy (a.k.a. Hoshin Kanri) to Lean Design through basic Lean Improvement events.  These Lean facilitation skills are vitally important in the RPA bot building process to move swiftly to the ideal process and to get stakeholder agreement on what a bot is supposed to do and how.  In our experience, stakeholder agreement on the steps a bot will take is often the most time-consuming task in the bot life-cycle.

Value Stream Analysis: The ability to define and assess value is a vital first step in the creation of a bot project portfolio. Understanding value, defining value streams, and the subsequent analysis allows us to create an orchestrated bot portfolio that actually reduces the time from input to outcome.  This is a serious problem with most RPA implementations.  They are speeding up micro level subtasks within value streams that merely create backlogs and do nothing to actually reduce the time to value or increase throughput.  Further, the definition of Value Streams provides us a meaningful basis for measuring the ROI of an RPA initiative.

Lean Process Design and Improvement: Matrix Based Design or Axiomatic Design combined with Lean thinking enables you to create profoundly complete and capable requirements for one or more bots in a single pass when your processes need a serious overhaul. For tweaking well designed processes, Lean process improvement will help identify common mistakes such as batch processing and other forms of waste ensuring that processes being automated don’t just speed up bad processes.

Lean Work Cells: Lean Work Cells (a.k.a. Scrum Teams) should be deployed for the bot building life-cycle to ensure work is conducted at its finest practical increment and focus on production is maintained with no hand-offs. The Lean RPA Work Cell may be the most important Lean method you can apply to your RPA program. Clear accountability for bot production and elimination of bot life-cycle hand-offs is of paramount importance.

Kan Ban: Kan Ban should be used by RPA Work cells to control rate of work in a “pull system”, Work In Process (WIP), and to ensure quality specifications for each project.

One Piece Flow: One Piece Flow should be used to ensure in-process inventories/backlogs are not created, that projects are right sized, and that the workload is balanced across work cells.

Poke Yoke: Mistake proofing should be employed in both the bot life-cycle as well as the process automated by each bot. A Lean expert will be familiar with mistake proofing techniques in the digital world making a significantly more robust system.

Be warned, simply doing the same old stuff and calling it Lean will not deliver results. Hanging post-it notes on walls to map processes is not Lean. You must incorporate actual Lean expertise that is only forged through Master’s level eduction, industry experience, and industrial certification to properly adopt and train Lean methods in your organization.

At MSI, we have 18 years of corporate Lean consulting experience and numerous highly respected Lean experts. We have a similar number of years with process automation using various process automation technologies and with the introduction of RPA, MSI has become a pioneer in the adaptation of our Lean Automation and Process Oriented Design techniques into the deployment and management of this breakthrough technology.

Our Lean RPA framework contains all aspects for Lean execution of a Lean Automation program from the Center of Excellence and strategic integration with the business down to hands on Lean RPA Bot development. RPA is coming to your organization, like it or not. Many organizations will stumble and flail about for years attempting to control RPA and turn it into ROI, while those adopting a Lean Thinking approach will benefit early and often.

A subject for another article is Hoshin Kanri, the Lean approach to operationalizing strategy. RPA programs should promote the use of Hoshin Kanri within their organizations and integrate a bot candidate review process for strategic initiatives within the Hoshin Plan. By integrating RPA into strategic initiatives, RPA can propogate throughout an organization strategically, prove its value, increase the probability of success for initiatives, and increase the measurability of initiatives.

Level Zero Value Stream Maps

This week’s post is about a simple tool any group of managers can use to help clarify relationships and streamline operations among major organizations in a value stream.  Level Zero Value Stream Maps or Phase Maps as they are sometimes called are an excellent tool for gaining consensus on the way things are or should be accomplished at a strategic level across organizations.  The level zero map is a high level overview documenting who owns and who supports each phase of an enterprise value stream.  It communicates things like the major inputs and outputs of each phase, the objectives of each phase, information systems used, and the major tasks associated with each phase.  Something I like to add to my level zero maps is the overall set of objectives for the value stream.  In fact, I like to do this first.  It is a “begin with the end in mind” approach to documenting the value stream and it gets everyone on the team aligned to a common set of goals.  From this start, the first pass is to move backwards defining the inputs and outputs of each phase such that you can pull the string on a single objective and see how it draws on inputs and outputs all the way back to the beginning.  The second, forward pass is to flush out the details.

The minimum set of information a level zero value stream map should include is.

  • A brief description of each phase
  • Who leads, who executes, and who supports each phase
  • Inputs and outputs of each phase (documents, etc. for back office processes)
  • Entry and exit criteria for each phase
  • The objective of each phase
  • High level list of tasks for each phase
  • Information systems used
  • Policy, manuals, or other references
  • Each phase should be numbered
  • Give each phase a meaningful title
  • High level metrics
  • Identify the variants of the value stream, meaning the different ways things enter and flow through (e.g., [micro, normal, large] or [trucks, trailers, spare parts]).  Create level zero at an level where these variants can be generically described, but make it clear that each is actually processed differently.

Creating a level zero value stream map requires some facilitation skill and it is easy to document something a bit myopic if the wrong person is leading the team, but is not rocket science.  The key is to be open minded, focus on the objectives and be willing to ask dumb questions like “Why do we create that document every time when it does not seem to be part of an objective?”

During the process of creating the level zero map, keep the notes on easel pads or a large white board.  Capture lists of the following: Problems Identified; Risks to the Desired Outcomes; Action Items; and Ideas.  When documenting the problems and risks, make a note of where they reside in the process this will be your first indication of where you may want to start working on performance improvement of the value stream.  It usually makes sense to identify the serious problems within the final outputs of the value stream and then perform root cause analysis to find the places in the value stream where those serious problems are starting.  A cluster of problems in a specific area is not enough to decide where to start working.  Make sure the problems being fixed are the ones most important to the final outcomes.

The style of flow chart used at this level varies greatly.  The best advice when it comes to style is to choose a style for your level zero map that will be consistent with lower level detailed process maps and will enable upward and downward integration of the process maps.  An example of a simple level zero is shown below.

If the value stream you work in does not have a value stream map accurately representing how business is done, you need one.  Make the development of one an agenda item at the next executive off site, or pull together a workshop with your value stream stakeholder to build one together. It is a great exercise that brings management together, develops unified vision, and can be the starting point for serious process improvement.

Note: There are formal standards such as BPMN and the Learning to See approach for documenting your value streams.  I have often found these standards are a great starting point, but not the total solution.  Do some research on these standards and come up with an approach that works for you and your stakeholders.

For more information, visit us at http://www.msi6.com

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