How to Implement Process Automation in 3 Steps – [Operations Automation 101, Part II]  

Luke Walker
February 19, 2021

Consider the default “process tool” of your organization. It’s probably email.

That’s right. In spite of its limitations, the lowly email has persisted for decades as the status quo "standard" of process management, spanning industries, regions, and enterprises.

No matter who you are or where you work, you speak email.

But let’s be clear. Email is not the best way to manage a business's most important operations – far from it, in fact. We’ve just gotten so used to it.

Because if you look at email, objectively, here’s where it falls short:

  1. There’s no standardization. People receive different emails with different information and instructions each time. That’s a major reliability issue.
  2. There’s no process tracking or status updates. Want to know the status of a process? Expand that thread of 17 emails, grab a coffee, and start reading.
  3. There’s no preset notifications or follow-ups. Just that email, parked somewhere in your overflowing inbox since last week.
  4. There’s no automation. No matter how many times you run the same operations process, everything still needs to be coordinated and handed-over manually.

Many companies still plow ahead with email as an operations management solution, simply because they're unaware that a better, automated way exists. Admittedly, there aren't a whole lot of operations-dedicated process or workflow management tools available (until quite recently, there were none).

Some operation leaders are also under the impression that implementing real automation would involve substantial budget and lead time commitments that they cannot afford.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Implementing reliable process automation is actually much easier than one might think.

What’s more, anyone in the business can implement it. You don't need additional training, technical experience, or IT support. And with the right approach, you can get a first automated process up and running in the course of a single afternoon.

Let's walk through it briefly. Here’s how to get started automating processes in 3 easy steps.

Step 1: List your operations processes

Begin by listing all of your business operations processes.

Ask – what does your operations team do everyday, or on a recurring basis?

Write a short description of each process (e.g. “Process Rental Returns”), name the responsible team 
 (e.g. “Rental Operations”), and then estimate how often you run that process on a monthly basis (e.g. 100 rentals per month = 100x rental return processes).

There is no right or wrong approach to business process identification. We see the following most commonly used:

  • Team approach: many ops leads go team-by-team, starting with their own, immediate team, and list out the major recurring processes that each of these teams have to do.

  • Volume approach: others go by the processes that the company does most frequently 
 (e.g. order fulfillment, the highest-volume process in Ecommerce). From there, the teams and tools are matched with the processes.
  • Process approach:  some leads start with one, core process 
 (e.g. new product launch) and then consider all of the secondary and tertiary processes that are linked 
 or associated with it (e.g. purchase ordering or returns).

Expect to spend 20-30 minutes creating your process list.

Step 2: Evaluate and Prioritize Your Process List

You’ve got your process list. Now it’s time to evaluate and rank your processes for automation priority.

We recommend evaluating along two dimensions: opportunity size (AKA “automation maturity”) and degree of business criticality. Let’s break them down quickly:

  • Dimension #1Opportunity size (“automation maturity”): Rate the extent of total coordination load, from “manual”, where the entire process is managed over email, phone, spreadsheets, meetings, and chat, to “automated” where coordination, handovers, instructions, system interactions, and notifications are all automated to the fullest extent
  • Dimension #2 – Business criticality: Rate the potential for serious impact on business outcomes, with specific emphasis on potential value created for customers. Processes on the low-end of the spectrum will have limited impact on actual business outcomes, whereas on the high-end are the “do or die” processes, and getting them right 
(or wrong) will directly impact customer success, costs, and business performance.  

    Based on your evaluation of the processes, select your top 5-10 processes where you believe automation would make the most impact. Rank them numerically by order of urgency.

Be ruthless in your prioritization and let go of nice-to-have’s for now. Focus on the processes that, if automated tomorrow, would make a substantial difference in your team’s performance and business outcomes.

Step 3: Automate Your First Process

To begin, start with one, high-potential pilot process. This will help you get a quick win fast, demonstrate early results, and build the early momentum that so many large-scale automation initiatives are missing.

It’s your decision which process to focus on first. Whatever you choose, just make sure that you commit to seeing it through.

To automate your first process, you’ll need two things:

  1. A process or workflow automation tool: To implement reliable automation fast, you’ll need an adequate tool – preferably a no-code or low-code option. We’ve prepared some useful guidelines here for finding the right tool to support your full automation agenda.

    If you’re an operations lead, work in an operations team, or are focused on an operations-specific use case, then you should consider giving Next Matter a try. You can automate your first process and try it free for 14 days.
  2. An automated process “mock up”: Open up a blank document, pull out a pen and paper, 
or find a clean whiteboard, and answer the following questions:

    What is the objective of the process? (Answer in one sentence)

    What is the ideal flow of the process? Map, write, or draw an outline of the exact sequence of steps end-to-end.

    What or who are the teams and stakeholders involved in executing the process? Write their names or team names next to the steps for which they are involved or accountable.

That’s it! You now have everything you need to start setting up the digital automation in your tool. Get your first process in place, notify the team members involved, and start running test processes to get in your first results and learnings.

Operations automation 101: Summary and Next Steps

So far, we’ve covered the basics of operations process automation: what it is, when do I need it, and how to get started implementing and using it at your business or organization.

For a more detailed, step-by-step guide of implementing automation across your operations department, be sure to download our free Operations Automation Playbook. It covers all that we’ve discussed in Operations Automation 101, with in-depth instructions, helpful templates and resources, and everything you need.

Most importantly, if you’ve made it this far, then you’re already aware that the status quo of email coordination and process management is really killing your organization. And now, you know that a better, automated way of managing operations is available for you, and can be set up in the scope of an afternoon.

So, do yourself a favor, and commit to applying these learnings in an automation pilot of your own. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be approved by the board. It just has to be better than the way you’re doing things today.

About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.

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