Myth #1

Software robots make Lean obsolete


January 2019


Judith Birte Zippora Klein

Software robots have gained increasing popularity in the past three years automating processes, especially across the administrative functions. With the ability to automate inefficient processes, the focus on Lean process improvement initiatives has decreased. Does that mean that software robots make Lean and process optimisation initiatives redundant?

What are software robots – and what can they do?

To find an answer to this, please let me start by asking the following question: What are software robots, and in which areas can they be applied? Are they little creatures which will walk around our future offices doing all the work we humans used to do? The answer is simple: No!

Software robots can be understood as a virtual workforce, which is established and managed by the business. The software robot can imitate the way humans perform a given task by utilising existing user interface layers. In that way, software robotics can be understood as a platform that automates repetitive, deterministic and high-volume tasks.

By clearly defining the standard operating procedure of a process and establishing a strict rule set, software robots can execute repetitive tasks at a high speed and at the same time eliminate manual errors in the process. Nowadays, software robots can be found across different industries and functions, but they are mostly applied in administrative settings.

So, if you can think of an inefficient process in your business area that is highly deterministic, repetitive and – at best – occurs at a high volume, you have a choice to make: You can either choose to kick-start a Lean process optimisation initiative or implement a software robot. What is your immediate thought towards handling the challenge? Would you know when to choose which solution? Let me highlight some of the benefits and pitfalls to be considered before implementing software robots in your organisation.

Even though implementing software robotics does not change the inefficient process itself, it speeds up the execution to a degree that will make you experience substantial efficiency gains. The four major benefits, which our customers typically experience when implementing a software robot, are:

  • Dramatic cost-savings, up to 90% compared to in-house operations (60% outsourced and 30% offshored)
  • Increased customer satisfaction by offering real-time processing and eliminating manual errors
  • Installing a flexible workforce operating 24/7/365
  • Improved data quality due to standardised and automated data input and output

Intrigued? Before making the decision on whether to automate or not, you should be clear on the following question:

What is the problem you want to solve: Creating (more) customer value or improving efficiencies?

Whether you choose between executing a Lean initiative or implementing a software robot depends on the problem you have at hand. Is the challenge you are facing (only) related to improving efficiency levels, or does it (also) relate to increasing customer satisfaction? Depending on your answer to this question, your approach and solutions will look very different.

To illustrate the questions at hand, imagine what the camera producer Kodak should have focused on when the demand for analogue cameras was declining in the early 2000s: Should they produce their analogue cameras at even higher efficiency levels, or should they have started to think about their customer needs and how they could serve those best to remain competitive?

As their customers started to switch towards digital cameras, increasing efficiency levels of analogue camera production did not solve Kodak’s underlying problem. Rather, Kodak should have focused on understanding their customers’ needs and serve those in both the most effective and efficient manner.

It is all about the customer

This example – although widely used – illustrates the importance of understanding what really creates value for your customers, and exactly this point is fundamental to Lean thinking. To ensure that the performed process creates value for the customer in terms of delivering the right product or service, with the right quality at the right time and cost, you need to go beyond improving process efficiencies. Ensuring that your process creates value for the customer and optimising your processes with an end-to-end thinking should be a precondition for improving process efficiencies. Otherwise, you might end up becoming efficient in doing the wrong thing.

Let me give another example from the world of call centres. Many improvement initiatives have spent a lot of energy on reducing the average handling time (AHT) aiming to make call handling more efficient by introducing scripts, conducting training etc. However, when analysing the content of these calls, studies show that up to 70% are “Failure Demand” (Implement, 2017). Failure Demand refers to demand which is caused by a failure to do something right for the customer (John Seddon), such as calls regarding products or services that are not working as they should, calls regarding received letters with mistakes or letters which the customer does not understand. Hence, instead of starting to improve efficiency levels and working on reducing AHT, one can also start by understanding the underlying customer need. Identifying the root causes and solving the problem where it occurs will lead to increased customer satisfaction by offering a better service and substantial cost-savings in your call centre.

Start by understanding your problem

These two examples emphasise the importance of being clear about the underlying problem that you want to solve. Before deciding on your approach, you must know whether you want to focus solely on increasing process efficiency, or if you (also) want to improve the value you deliver to your customers. If you are “only” challenged by the low levels of efficiency or long lead times in processes, you should consider software robotics. Software robots can thereby be understood as a tool to improve efficiency levels without having to improve the process itself.

Software robots are particularly suitable if the input of the process is triggered by a digital data set and if the process is driven by a set of rules that do not change much over time. There is no need to spend time on optimising process efficiencies if you can automate a process. However, if your problem goes beyond improving efficiency levels, software robots will not be enough to solve it. This brings us back to our myth and main question:

Will software robots make Lean initiatives redundant?

The answer is NO! Yet, Lean initiatives and implementing software robots are not mutually exclusive. Rather, software robotics should be understood as a new opportunity, a new tool in the toolbox of Lean.

When thinking Lean, you start by truly understanding your customers’ needs and how you can serve them in the most efficient and effective manner. When you are sure that your processes are effective in delivering value to the customer, you can start to improve process efficiency. This i where software robots can come into play.

For processes that have digital data as input, are rule-based and repetitive, you can drastically increase efficiency levels by implementing a software robot. So, you might want to stop spending time on improving this kind of processes and rather start to invest in a software robot that will manage your process 24/7. However, if your problem goes beyond pure efficiency improvements, Lean is the way to go.