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A short guide to RPA: Identifying the right processes to automate

How to approach RPA?

Robotic Process Automation, or RPA for short, is still a relatively new thing, though it is getting more well known all the time. The name can be slightly misleading: RPA does not mean that hosts of robots are coming to take over all human work and cause massive layoffs. But in its unintended allusions to science fiction, RPA has sparked fear and resistance – as all change does.

There are steps you can take to try to determine whether RPA would be beneficial for your organization. You can take these steps yourself or together with your team, quite independently from external consultants, so the cost of this exercise is fairly low and there’s no need to feel unduly committed or pressured to anything while doing such investigations.

So why not investigate, just in case? Even if you decide against RPA, going through these steps will be worth the time and effort put into them.

Choose potential processes for automation

It’s very important to start with small and simple processes. If you’ve never defined processes, you will be in for a surprise. No matter how small a process is, defining it with all its exceptions and edge cases makes it much larger than it appears at first glance. Even if you have defined processes before, it’s important to start small when considering automation for the first time. The more logical and easier to define the process is, the faster it is to implement and less prone to errors.

That said, you do want the selected processes to be worth automating. It’s therefore advisable to pick processes which are “annoying” – processes that take up a lot of time every day, nuances that everyone would rather do without, but need to be handled nevertheless. If they end up being automated, people will thank you for it.

Notice how I said “if”. There are many reasons why a process might not be suitable for automation despite seeming so at first glance. There might be too many process steps where a person needs to decide what to do next or the process is very complex and would take a lot of time to automate. You may also find ways to improve the process so that the automated part would only be run few times a month. These, and other reasons, may determine that the investment is just not worthwhile. Therefore, it is important to pursue multiple potential processes early on.

Define the processes

This is the obvious step after selecting potential processes. After all, you can’t automate a process if you haven’t defined it in the first place. To start, you should gather the people who know the processes, aptly named the Subject Matter Experts aka SMEs, in the same room and get them to help you to define the processes.

It is important to first define the start and end of the process. For example, the recruitment process can start when the need for a new position or resource is realized, the position is advertised, or the first interview starts. Similarly, it can end when the last interview ends, the decision to extend an offer is made, an offer is accepted, a new employee starts their first day at the office, or they are considered a productive member of the team. Defining the start and end points early helps to focus the conversation.

Let’s say that the definition of the recruitment process ends up only including the interviews: the process starts when the first interview starts and ends when the last interview ends. There are a lot of things left out of the scope which will not be included in the process at all. This might sound harsh, but it helps the team focus their time and efforts on what they deemed to be the core of the process – all other things are outside of the scope and not considered. The result of this exercise should be a detailed process map document.

Observe the process in action

You should then go back and observe how people follow the mapped process. Based on your observations amend the process map document where needed. This is a crucial step that should always be taken. Very often you may find that there are two processes in place: the official one people say they follow, and the unofficial one they actually follow. You want to make your process automation decisions based on the actual process in place, not the official process, which might not be followed. The real process is the one truly affecting people’s everyday life, not the unused one.

Improve the process

Next take what you’ve seen and heard and consider if you could make the process better. To do this, you should try to identify possible bottlenecks and other problem areas in the process. The goal here is to then streamline the process where possible. Streamlining is done by identifying parts of the process which can be speeded up or performed congruently instead of linearly. Finally, you need to identify if the process or any part of it could be automated.

Iterate with the Subject Matter Experts


To complete the process definition exercise, gather the SMEs back together and introduce the improved process map to them. Get their feedback and reiterate the process map together with them to make it even better.

The SMEs should then write the final version of the process document as a standard operation procedure document, which can be used when training new people in the future. If any part of the process is to be automated, start the automation project. In the end, even if the process ends up not being automated at all, it is now defined better, people perform it the same way, and thus it is most likely more efficient and pleasant for the people that are performing it. You also have a better idea about what kind of processes are suited for automation and which ones are not.

Read more about Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
Read more about Robotic Operating Model

Article by Emma Luukka (2016) – RPA Solutions Consultant, Digital Workforce. Edited in July, 2019.

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