Why automation isn’t always an improvement

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Technology
  • Post comments:0 Comments
  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

Modern tools are helping businesses automate their processes without knowing programming languages. Putting this power into the hands of people at the forefront of the business is a great idea – who better to automate work than the departments and people performing the work? But there is one important step that is often overlooked before automating work – optimising the flow of work. Let’s take a look at what that means.

The technique of value stream mapping (VSM) has its roots in manufacturing and is most commonly credited to Toyota and the Toyota Production System book (1993). In a manufacturing context, the VSM is used to depict the flow of materials and information from one part of the factory to the next.

In recent years, the technique has gained traction in the IT community, and is commonly used to identify the flow of work and value – in this context, things like support tickets, requests, code under development, and other knowledge artefacts that can be thought of as “materials”. Multiple IT frameworks and approaches, from ITIL 4 and IT4IT to DevOps, talk about the application of VSM.

The power of VSM lies in its ability to track work from when it is identified to the point when it is completed. Through collaborative workshops, stakeholders can gain a better appreciation of the work that goes on in other teams or departments and can identify how much time a piece of work – a support ticket, a request, a task, and so on – waits before someone starts working on it, versus how much time it takes for someone to complete it. It also reminds people that the rate at which work can be completed is the rate at which the slowest link can work.

Let’s consider the example of a Formula One pit crew. When the car comes in, it waits while the crew work frantically to change the tyres, refuel the car, and so on. Let’s say changing the tyres takes two seconds, but the refuel requires five seconds. How long do you think the car is going to spend waiting before it can get back into the race?

Delays in any individual step determine the overall speed of  a business process. For instance, a simple description of accounts payable work might be to receive the invoice, match the invoice to a purchase order, check that goods or services were received, check payment terms, get the invoice payment approved by a finance controller, schedule payment, update the accounting system, and finally complete any other paperwork.

In this example, getting payment approval takes two weeks, but the rest of the steps take less than a day (I appreciate this example might need some willing suspension of disbelief). Well, the whole process needs two weeks to complete. Investing in automation to reduce time and effort outside of the payment approval step is highly unlikely to have any significant impact on the total time needed.

Although automation can bring significant gains in efficiency, quality and speed, it is unlikely to do so if the bottlenecks and constraints have not been addressed. There are several techniques that departments can use to achieve these outcomes, but often a true “end-to-end” value stream map is needed. This requires multiple departments to collaborate and to be willing to accept criticism (and offer criticism).

The ITIL 4 framework provides a set of guiding principles that can help guide these conversations and activities. These principles (in no particular order) are:

  • Focus on value.
  • Start where you are.
  • Collaborate and promote visibility.
  • Progress iteratively with feedback.
  • Think and work holistically.
  • Keep it simple and practical.
  • Optimise and automate.

There is one other caution I’d like to offer to businesses looking to invest in more automation: automation is the replacement of human cognition and removal of empathy. Think back to your own experiences. Perhaps you’ve tried to get a package delivery rescheduled, only to work within the constraints of the system available on the website. That system doesn’t know (or care) if you’re looking after a sick child, or if you need to step out for 30 minutes. Yet it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Akshay Anand is an ‎ITSM product ambassador and evangelist at Axelos.

Leave a Reply