Manager's Guide to Robotic Process Automation
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a rapidly growing industry that, according to a report by Consegic Business Intelligence, is expected to reach USD 120.2 billion by 2030. In 2022, the market was worth 2.4 billion.
Already proven to be much more than just another buzzword, RPA continues to capture the imagination of entrepreneurs and corporate stakeholders worldwide. However, business leaders looking to transform their companies into truly digital enterprises often need support in understanding and implementing RPA automation throughout their teams and departments.
Read further to learn what is robotic process automation, what RPA can do, and how to implement RPA in your organization effectively. Discover all stages RPA software undergoes and best practices for implementing RPA.
What is Robotic Process Automation?
Robotic process automation (RPA) is a type of automation where software bots are programmed to observe, learn, and replicate actions performed by humans in the graphical user interface (GUI) of an application. RPA is popular in banking and finance, transportation and logistics, pharma and healthcare, and other industries.
What Robotic Process Automation solutions can do?
By mimicking human interactions with software applications, RPA bots can efficiently perform many preconfigured actions, such as identifying, extracting, and inputting data. For example, an RPA solution can detect that an email contains an invoice from a provider, extract the vendor name and the bill amount, and then enter this information into the appropriate fields in your company's CMS.
Six phases of the RPA lifecycle
Phase 1: Discovery
Discovery is the first and most critical phase of RPA implementation. In this phase, automation experts supported by technologies like AI select the process that should be automated and define the governance to build solid foundations for the entire procedure.
During the discovery phase, companies must focus on their unique requirements when deciding whether a process is a good candidate for automation. For selected processes, RPA analysts perform detailed examinations to assess their complexity. In the meantime, the automation architect and business team collaborate to create a high-level implementation plan (or a robotic process automation strategy).
Phase 2: Design
After the discovery phase is complete, your automation experts can start the design work. During this phase, the team has to decide on subsequent steps necessary to automate a given task and create a Process Design Document (PDD), Solution Design Document, and Technical Design Document that the development team will need.
These documents include all the essential information the RPA team needs to perform the next steps accurately. The design phase should also be the time to consider additional requirements such as budget, timeline, and the current team headcount.
Phase 3: Development
During the development phase, the developers finally sit down to write some code. They create automation scripts within the chosen RPA tool or build one from the ground up. The idea is to follow the previously developed PDD to ensure the bot will carry out its task as accurately as possible.
Phase 4: Testing
Once a suitable bot is developed, it's time to test it. During the testing phase, the QA team creates various scenarios to determine if the bot can do what it's supposed to, following diverse QA testing techniques that are part of the regular Software Development Lifecycle flow.
If testing proves successful, the team proceeds to the next stage. However, if some tests fail, the bot is reversed to the development phase to fix errors. After that, the testing process is repeated, and after achieving success, the team is ready to transmit into the deployment phase.
Phase 5: Deployment
After developing and testing the bot, it's time to deploy it to the production environment. Unfortunately, some issues might surface only after it happens, which will result in the bot returning to the development phase to fix errors again. After successful deployment, the bot is ready to be used by its end users.
Phase 6: Support and maintenance
Support and maintenance is the last phase of the robotic process automation lifecycle. Once the bots are deployed, the team must analyze real use cases to optimize the automation, improve security, and update the robotic process automation workflow as the requirements change in time. Excellent support and maintenance should be an essential part of robotic process automation services, as only quick and reliable problem-solving can bring the best experience to users.
Best practices for RPA implementation
1. Select the right processes for the most significant benefits
To maximize the impact of your robotic process automation strategy, you should start by identifying the processes that will be most impactful. In most cases, they're usually ones that are:
- Influence cost and revenue. They're expensive and impact consumers directly. Quote-to-cash is an excellent example of that since the speed and effectiveness of this process can make or break a sale. This is a good candidate for RPA since it can be automated.
- High-volume. One of the key advantages of RPA is that it reduces the amount of human effort involved in tasks. It makes sense to start automating the processes of the highest volume first.
- Fault-tolerant. If your process can handle errors, then you could prioritize automation or establish a quality control process to make sure that every automation error is noted. Remember that RPAs rely on user interfaces to complete tasks. Any changes there might result in errors. For example, automating invoice-to-pay processes is a good idea. Still, payments for a specific value need to be approved by a human employee first.
- Error-prone. The more errors that can creep into your process, the more benefits you will get from automating them. Such mistakes can lead to poor customer experience or even cause regulatory problems, especially for customer-facing processes.
- Time-sensitive - Any process that could delay the delivery of services to customers is a good candidate for automation because it makes processes lightning-fast.
Once you find a suitable business case, you must ensure that automating this process with RPA won't generate another set of challenges.
2. Choose processes that can be easily automated
Here are the best candidates in terms of ease of automation:
- Rule-based processes. The best processes for automation are those described by specific rules. That's because RPA bots need to be programmed by developers. If the rules of your process cannot be programmed, it's not a good candidate for RPA. Sure, bots can be trained with complex rules and even discover rules that aren't apparent to humans. But automating such a process will require a lot of time and money, as well as careful observation of the results.
- Processes with few exceptions. If your process has a lot of undocumented rules (even if it's rule-based) and plenty of potential exceptions, it will be hard to identify them all through interviews with domain experts. Such a process isn't a good candidate for automation.
- Company-specific processes. Is the process something that all companies in your industry carry out, or is it unique to your organization? For example, expense auditing usually takes place in a similar way in most companies of a particular size. That's why building an RPA system for expense auditing from the ground up doesn't make sense – it will be much more expensive and far less effective than an out-of-the-box solution developed specifically for handling such a process.
- Mature processes. Automating a process that changes every week is a waste of your time. Developers will end up spending a lot of time on alterations and maintenance. Instead, pick processes that are stable and are going to stay the same for a while.
Make sure to streamline the process itself before working on its automation. This step might even reveal that the process in question isn't a good candidate for RPA.
3. Get the stakeholders and employees on your side
To be successful at robotic process automation, you must convince your organization that automating a given process is a good idea. That's because implementing automation isn't only about technology – it's also about culture and people. In fact, forgetting about that is one of the organizations' greatest mistakes when implementing IT automation.
So, focus on getting the management's buy-in first. You know that the process can be automated and what possible benefits this can bring. You're ready to build a compelling business case for the company leadership team. Just make sure to mention the Return on Investment (ROI).
Next, it's time to get the employees' support. If you're automating an outsourced process, you're just bringing in savings, and the team that used to manage the outsourced process will likely be just as happy to manage an automated process. But things may look slightly different if you're automating an in-house process. No worker wants to wake up one day to discover that a bot has made their job redundant. That's why it's essential to have an open and honest discussion about what automation means to the teams and what value it brings.
To convince employees, show your plans for upscaling redundant team members and indicate which teams they will join after automation. Encourage support for automation by showing how much time team members will save by not having to do so many manual tasks.
4. Make your preparations before implementing RPA
To feel well-prepared, you must have a solid understanding of the process you want to automate. And the best way to understand it is by interviewing operators currently running these processes. However, if you rely only on this approach, you'll soon see it's very costly. Interviews take time and are error-prone because people have imperfect memories and hold cognitive biases.
Alternatively, you can combine interviews with insights from analyzing tasks or process mining. Process mining software allows companies to analyze their logs and understand the flows of real-life processes. Task mining generates data by video recording employee actions. Naturally, the vendors behind such software can easily remove all nonpublic information from the videos.
By combining these data sources, you'll learn the actual process flow and identify unnecessary steps or bottlenecks. Now it's time to assess how you can improve it with automation. Before proceeding with an RPA implementation, look for possible improvements to the process (how to simplify it or make it more understandable). This way, you will reduce the effort required to program and audit the selected process (and possibly improve the overall customer experience).
5. Pick the right RPA implementation partner
At this point, you may see that your robotic process automation strategy needs support from RPA experts. A choice of partner should be based on the technical requirements of your project. Pick a company with in-depth domain knowledge and experience in implementing RPA for organizations in your industry.
While some vendors offer tailor-made development, configuration, and testing, others sell ready-made RPA solutions and implementation support. Some can do both, depending on your company's needs. Some enterprises hire consulting companies to build an entire delivery center for all future RPA implementations.
6. Run a pilot and test your solution
Testing is a critical aspect of RPA implementation. Minor differences in user systems, such as different screen resolutions or operating systems, can sometimes lead to unexpected bugs. All probable scenarios must be thoroughly tested before you launch the solution company-wide. If possible, utilize historical data to come up with more realistic tests.
After the first round of tests, it's time to run a pilot. Start by determining the targets your robotic process automation solution must hit. In a closed environment, you can securely determine the number of tasks completed without human intervention or the number of successfully processed invoices. Then it's time to run a live pilot. Every day, the team responsible for the process will review a random selection of the bot's outputs to understand its quality. Finally, evaluate the pilot's results, fix errors, and optimize the bots. End the pilot only after meeting the previously determined targets.
There's no denying that RPA is on its way to becoming one of the most sought-after solutions among enterprises operating in sectors from financial services and insurance to healthcare and automotive. At Maxima Consulting, we support organizations across the world in implementing their robotic process automation strategies, streamlining processes, eliminating manual work, and optimizing inefficiencies to improve team productivity and customer experience.
Contact us today, and we will help you launch an RPA project at your company by providing you with the expertise you need.
This article was first published in 2021 and later updated. The last update was made on June 6th, 2023.