If you want to grow your revenue and company, automating business processes is the way to go. That's what everyone is telling you. You're inclined to believe it, but before you overhaul your organization, you want some evidence. Where are those business process automation statistics that support this statement?
As a heads up, we won't bombard you with percentages and research findings. This is not that type of blog post. Don’t get us wrong — we are all about automation technology and statistics. But we believe the best lessons are learned in daily life.
Over the years, we've seen organizations succeed (sometimes grandly) and fail (sometimes epically) when trying to skyrocket their businesses. Those who effectively embarked on an automation journey didn't implement a silver bullet solution (like workflow automation or marketing automation software) across the organization. Yet, many believe it sounds very efficient.
You've probably toyed with the idea, too. And frankly, you think it's a pretty darn good plan. For why not eliminate all manual tasks simultaneously?
We'll tell you why: you don't want to end up like Paul.
Business process automation gone awry: the story of Paul
First things first: Paul is no rookie in the business community. When it comes to entrepreneurship, he knows the ropes. He's often been praised for his innovative, go-getter mentality. He has built a thriving business from scratch and he's proud of it.
So when someone told Paul his company was lagging behind in terms of technology, he took it personally. "Challenge accepted," he said, a grim smile crossing his face.
Fast-forward to three months later, and hawk-eyed Paul had done his research. No competitor had gone unnoticed. Much to his dismay, Paul discovered that other business leaders in his sector had implemented business process automation solutions long ago. Some were happily reaping the benefits of ingenious automation software while others had embraced robotic process automation (RPA). And those at the initial stages had at least made detailed automation plans — for example, to eliminate a range of repetitive tasks or automate customer service interactions.
Paul panicked. His employees still exchanged Excel sheets manually, spent tons of time on manual data entry, and wasted precious hours tweaking quote after quote (rather than closing sales deals). Had Paul been living under a rock? He threw a little tantrum. Why, he yelled, were his employees performing prehistoric manual tasks? Were they, unbeknownst to him, also trying to make fire and invent the wheel while Paul's competitors were preparing for their next space flight? (Paul could be a bit dramatic at times.)
Paul decided to thoroughly improve business process efficiency. "We'll tackle everything," he said. "In one year, this company will be automated from A to Z. Manual processes will be history. You just wait and see."
Experts tried to warn him. "A step-by-step approach is much more beneficial," they claimed. But they didn't get a chance to explain that statement, as Paul and his brand-new automation team had already withdrawn into their ivory tower.
Twelve months later, they re-emerged with what Paul thought was a brilliant automation solution. He believed it would leave other business leaders eating his dust. But then reality kicked in. Once Paul began to implement his automation software, it turned out the world had changed, and automation technology had adapted accordingly. What had been relevant a year ago was obsolete now.
We'll spare you the mental breakdown that followed. Paul got back in the saddle. But today — five years later — he's still old school. Stuck in a vicious cycle, he’s fighting a losing battle. He still hasn't implemented a single mention-worthy automation solution. Having plummeted to the bottom of business process automation statistics, he desperately tries to save a sinking ship.
In his quest to overhaul all processes, Paul has changed none.
Automation technology: only useful if you know how to use it
We'll make a bold assumption and say you don't want to follow in Paul's footsteps. His megalomaniac approach is clearly a recipe for failure.
Today's world is a dynamic place. Agility is key. Not only because technology develops at breakneck speed, but also because you might encounter external factors. A recent example is the pandemic. What if you'd signed up for a two-year automation project right before COVID-19 changed the face of the world?
The secret to successful, fast process automation
Manual processes tend to hinder business growth. So, you probably prefer to automate them all. But the secret to successful, fast process automation is working in iterations. Basically, this means you repeat a set of steps and benefit from ever-expanding results. And that's the power of the Business Process Automation Cycle.
Automating tasks in iterations requires flexibility and self-reflection. First, you automate one element of one operational process. That will help you free up some time. It's a relatively small gain, but you can capitalize on it during the next iteration, which will create more time. You can use those hours to automate another process, which, in turn, frees up more time — et cetera, et cetera. You get the gist. Before you know it, you've entered the cycle of automation and are benefiting from the snowball effect.
This approach comes with several benefits. For starters, small short-term improvements are more impactful than major long-term ones. They help you scale your business fast. On top of that, automating by trial and error allows you to adjust quickly. After each iteration, you will have gained insights that help you decide on the direction you should take. That way, you can maximize both short-term and long-term results.
Streamlining business processes: how to go about it?
To get off to a flying start, you should first tackle one time-consuming manual process. That way, automation will immediately make a difference.
When it comes to determining each subsequent iteration, you have two options: a horizontal iteration (during which you automate adjacent processes) or a vertical iteration (during which you automate (sub)processes within a business process you've already automated).
We'll provide some examples to illustrate what these iterations look like in practice.
Horizontal iterations: no more tedious, repetitive tasks
Fortunately, not everyone is like Paul.
One of our customers, for example, embarked on their automation journey by tackling a single process. They built a customer portal and experienced the initial benefits of automation. Then, they had a brainwave: what if they created a franchise portal and involved other companies?
They got to work — a lucrative decision, because within one year the company expanded its team from 10 to a whopping 45 people!
Another Triggre customer has also embraced the one-step-at-a-time approach. This logistics company built a tool to calculate the lowest possible shipment costs during the first iteration.
Once the tool was up and running, the customer had a close look at their other business processes. They quickly realized customer returns were not handled in a very cost-effective manner. Having experienced the power of automation technology, they felt encouraged to optimize that process. So, they built a brand-new portal. Here, customers enter the item they want to return, and the system calculates the cheapest return method.
As it turns out, a little math goes a long way: the portal — which was built within two months — has resulted in eight-figure savings on an annual basis.
Vertical iterations: optimizing the invoicing process in 4 clear steps
To explain vertical iterations, we'll provide insight into one of our own automation processes. At Triggre, we sell subscriptions to a variety of customers. The model comes with bulk billing, which used to involve time-consuming manual tasks. During our first iteration, we eliminated those. It was a fairly easy step and therefore a quick win.
During our second iteration, we automated manual invoicing. That allowed us to scratch several manual tasks from our to-do lists — for example, those related to the processing of hourly invoices.
Then, we tackled a process that concerns our partners, who sell our solution to several customers. They prefer to receive a collective invoice each month (instead of one invoice per customer). During the third iteration, we automated the manual tasks involved in that process.
Finally, we ensured that booked invoices automatically end up in our accounting system. However, when customers manually book invoices, we still complete some manual tasks to register these as paid. Yet, the process that follows has been automated.
Of course, we aim to eliminate all repetitive tasks eventually. But our iterative approach has been extremely beneficial, as it’s allowed us to book results fast. And there's something to be said for learning as you go. Those who lock themselves in an ivory tower (we're looking at you, Paul) can't adjust their ultimate goal based on insights gained along the way. And it's precisely those in-between aha moments that keep you on the path to growth and success.
Mix and match: going in different directions works!
Sometimes you have to zigzag your way to success. Automating business processes is no linear endeavor, so we support a combination of horizontal and vertical iterations — if it benefits your business, that is.
Incidentally, that's no hollow statement. We always test-drive our recommendations to make sure people like Paul don't keep sinking in quicksand (call us crazy, but despite his stubbornness, we feel for Paul).
In between our vertical iterations, we completed a few horizontal ones. For example, we built a tool that automatically sends new versions of marketing documents to all people in our distribution network. That way, they're notified of the updated document without us having to complete a range of manual tasks (which was the case in the past). It's a major time-saver. But we could only create this tool after having completed the first vertical iteration. We needed the insights gained during that process. And we had to reduce some basic repetitive manual tasks before this horizontal iteration became interesting.
Getting started: 7 tips for automating your business processes
- Remember, easy does it
Whatever you do, make sure you tackle one iteration at a time. Only then, you'll gain the insights required to assess which process to automate next.
- Stretch your corporate muscles
Remain agile throughout and constantly evaluate whether you're on the right track. Keep a close eye on what's happening around you and be willing to adapt. Let Paul's story be an example of what not to do!
- Keep those who tested the waters close
Once you've completed the first iteration, keep your 'pioneers' (those involved in your initial Business Process Automation Cycle) on board. If they are somehow part of the second iteration, it will put their co-workers at ease. Plus, your trailblazers' enthusiasm will be contagious.
- Don't look beyond the horizon
Always assume your next iteration is within reach. It's usually best to focus on adjacent business processes. If, for example, you've just automated your customer request process, why not tackle the invoicing process or the order process?
- Get the most out of your iterations
Keep in mind that each iteration should maximize time savings. To achieve that goal, try and get several departments to automate their separate processes.
- Embrace baby steps
If you're well into your automation journey and several subprocesses still involve manual tasks, don't feel like you have failed. That's normal. In fact, it's paramount that you take baby steps. Automating 80% fast is better than attempting to go from 0% to 100%. Paul has done the latter, and we know where he's currently at.
- Don't be afraid to distinguish patterns
Once you've gained some experience going through subprocesses, try and distill patterns. In this case, it won't make you a conspiracy theorist. And it will facilitate further automation.
Get the snowball rolling
No matter the size of your business, automation is the future. Now more than ever, it's crucial to double down on enhancing productivity and achieving growth.
To save time, increase efficiency, and reduce costs, you will want to automate business processes one step at a time.
Are you interested in adopting an iterative approach? Then the Business Process Automation Cycle is your go-to method. Download our free ultimate scaleup guide to learn more about it!