How to quickly realize the benefits of automating a manual process

Jesse Meijers

It's high time to get manual tasks out of the way. You want to grow your revenue and your business, and you know what will help you do that: optimizing productivity and efficiency asap. But here's the predicament: while you see the benefits of automating a manual process, you don't know how to quickly reap the benefits of process automation.

The traditional route doesn't look particularly attractive. If you tackle business process automation in its entirety, you'll be catapulted into a two-year journey — a time span in which the world (and therefore technology) may change so drastically that many of your efforts will have been in vain once you're done.

Maintaining the status quo isn't an option, either. Your manual processes currently hinder business growth. You're stuck, and that's not a good place to be — especially not in today's fast-paced, competitive landscape.

You want results and you want them now. What’s the most efficient, effective approach?

In this blog post, we'll let you in on the secret to successful, fast process automation: working in iterations.

Why bother? The benefits at a glance

Perhaps you’re still on the fence about moving fast when it comes to automation. Don't good things come to those who wait? (Spoiler alert: no, dawdlers tend to miss the innovation boat.)

Here are some crucial benefits you will want to leverage quickly!

More time and efficiency

Employees manually exchange Excel sheets all the time. They make tons of changes and send them back and forth — sometimes on a daily basis. You can easily eliminate such mundane tasks through automation, which will help them save time and increase efficiency.

Less errors

Manual tasks are very error-prone. Like life, typos happen. You can beat yourself up about it, but we're only human — and humans make mistakes. The good news is, software usually doesn't. The beauty of automation is that it drastically reduces errors.

Higher scalability

If there's an opportunity for growth, you will want to seize it. But if your processes are manual, you’ll have to hire more people for every additional task that presents itself. With automated processes, it's easier to scale your business. After all, you can handle more work with the same amount of people.

Lower expenses

Elaborating on the former points, your employees will be much more efficient if you automate manual processes — which will result in lower expenses. What if, for example, an account manager no longer spends several hours creating a complex quote (which they had to check thoroughly to ensure it didn't contain any errors) because software handles it for them? They might be able to handle one additional sales call per day.

Process automation sounds great, but where on earth do I start?

Now that you're aware of the benefits, you're excited about business process automation. It may seem appealing to overhaul your entire organization at once. But that's a pretty megalomaniac approach that has proven to be a recipe for failure (in fact, it might cause you to plummet to the bottom of business process automation statistics). Technology develops at breakneck speed, so you should be flexible.

And that's not the only reason why you need elbowroom. Just imagine what happened to companies that bravely signed up for a three-year automation project in January 2020, only to be hurled into a global pandemic two months later. When the face of the world changed, they didn't have the agility to adapt accordingly.

The question is, what to do?

The beauty of baby steps (or, how to automate processes successfully)

We've got two words for you: baby steps. You'll want to scale fast, as small short-term improvements are more impactful than major long-term improvements.

Automating by trial and error also helps you adjust after each change you implement. Of course you'll have an overarching goal. But you will gain insights along the way, and they might spur you to fine-tune your final objective long before you reach the finishing line — which will help maximize both short-term and long-term results.

Automating manual processes the right way: the power of iterations

A slightly more professional equivalent for 'baby steps' is 'iterations.'

The power of the Business Process Automation Cycle is in its iterative nature. You repeat a set of steps and benefit from ever-expanding results. Rather than taking the elevator to the top floor of a building and climbing onto the roof’s edge to get a bird’s-eye view of the city, you stop at each of the twelve floors to briefly reflect on your journey. You assess your progress and determine what information you can bring along to the top. When you arrive at your final destination, you’ve already transformed. By that time, you’ve learned that you can enjoy a panoramic view without risking your life by acting like a tightrope walker.

Here's how iterations work in a nutshell: you start by automating one element of one operational process, free up some time, capitalize on that relatively small gain to tackle the next iteration, free up more time, use those hours to automate another process, and voila: you've entered the cycle of automation. What's great about this approach is that you'll benefit from the snowball effect.

Image of iterations

Of course you'll have to start with the process that is most time-consuming, so automation will make a difference right away. Once you’ve completed your first iteration, you should make a range of decisions, as you will need to organize each subsequent iteration. Whenever you find yourself at this recurring intersection, you can either opt for a horizontal iteration (which involves the automation of adjacent processes) or a vertical iteration (which involves the automation of (sub)processes within a business process you've already automated).

Horizontal iterations: 4 practical examples

1. Keeping the assembly line rolling

Manufacturing company Wikkelhouse, which builds modular houses using cardboard, iteratively improves its processes. First, it automated the process of calculating the time required to cut out a set of partial designs. The goal: to free up time and make its machine work as efficiently as possible.

Once Wikkelhouse completed this initial iteration, it went on to automate the adjacent assembly process (among others). After parts have been produced, they're used in this process to create a module. But some parts break or have a production flaw. They need to be reproduced. During a horizontal iteration, Wikkelhouse decided to automate the process of assembly to ensure these parts are pushed to the top of the production queue. This minimizes the company's stock of produced parts as well as waiting time for assembly.

2. Quoting made easy (be gone, repetitive tasks!)

Traditionally, quoting is a manual process that involves a variety of steps. You have to create an attractive quote, share it with your prospect, process the signed version, and send the document to the Production Department, where your co-workers schedule the assignment.

This process involves lots of repetitive manual tasks you want to eliminate. Fortunately, you can perfectly automate it step by step through horizontal iterations. Slowly but surely, you'll tackle the process from A to Z.

3. One automated process leads to another

After one of our customers embarked on their automation journey, the snowball effect kicked in. They started by building a customer portal. That quickly led to a highly innovative idea. Our customer said, "Why not build a franchise portal and involve other companies?"

That single insight resulted in significant growth: within one year, our customer expanded its team from 10 to 45 people!

4. Less tedious tasks, more savings

Sounds like the golden combination, doesn't it? The good news is, it's well within reach.

A customer of Triggre's built a tool to calculate the lowest possible shipment costs. Given that it's a logistics company, this was a useful first iteration.

But that initial step quickly led to a much bigger improvement. Having seen the benefits of automating a manual process, the company realized it could handle customer returns in a more cost-effective way. How? By building a portal where customers can enter the item they want to return, after which the system calculates the cheapest return method.

The ROI is amazing: the portal, which took two months to build, has resulted in eight-figure savings on an annual basis.

Vertical iterations: how Triggre's 4-step process resulted in optimization

1. Automating bulk billing

At Triggre, we sell subscriptions to a variety of customers. Our first automation step was to eliminate the manual processes surrounding bulk billing. We are dealing with other forms of invoicing, too. But this was the easiest step and therefore a quick win.

2. Tackling manual invoicing

The second iteration was vertical in nature. Once we checked the 'bulk billing box,' we decided to automate manual invoicing. That way, we eliminated several manual tasks, including those involved in the processing of hourly invoices.

3. Addressing a partner-related process

Next, we had a close look at a partner-related process. Our partners receive commissions and invoices from us. Since they sell our solution to several customers, they prefer that we send a collective invoice each month (rather than one invoice per customer). That process involves various manual tasks, so we decided to automate it during the third — vertical — iteration.

4. Including the accounting system

During the fourth iteration, we ensured that booked invoices automatically end up in our accounting system. If customers manually book invoices, we have to register these as paid — and that still requires some manual steps. The process that follows, however, has now been automated.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to automate all manual tasks involved in the invoicing process. But our iterative approach has allowed us to book results fast and learn as we go. It's a win-win situation that benefits business processes and growth.

Can I combine horizontal and vertical iterations to accelerate business process automation?

Great question — and yes, you can. Having done it ourselves, we absolutely recommend that you combine horizontal and vertical iterations whenever the opportunity arises.

Just make sure to start by automating the most time-consuming manual processes. Usually they involve many repetitive tasks which are tedious and require effort. You'll probably have to complete several vertical iterations first.

Once you've reduced repetitive manual tasks, horizontal iterations might become more interesting. In between our vertical iterations, we completed a few horizontal iterations as well. For example, we created a tool that automatically sends new versions of marketing documents to everyone in our distribution network to notify them of the updated document. It's a huge time-saver. But we never could have built this tool if we hadn't completed the first vertical iteration.

So, combining the two types of iterations pays off. You should, however, make sure to tackle one iteration at a time. Only then, you'll gain the insights required to assess which process to automate next.

A note on business automation and external factors

You can do all the prep work you want, but it's impossible to anticipate and control everything.

Suppose you're automating the invoicing process on the assumption that it takes one minute to process one document. But when evaluating progress, you discover it takes 10 minutes. That's a game changer, and you will have to understand the reason behind it.

Now let’s assume that after some digging, you determine that the amount of invoices have increased during your iteration. In that case, external factors have affected your initial plans, and you'll have to adjust to the new situation.

So, we want to reiterate the importance of continuous evaluation and agility. Remember, the age of the ivory tower is over: you should keep a close eye on what's happening around you and always be willing to adapt.

Want to sink your corporate teeth into automation? Use these 5 tips

  • Have your 'pioneers' (those who were involved in the first Business Process Automation Cycle) spread the word about the results of the first iteration. Also, make sure they are somehow part of the second iteration. Their experience will put others at ease and their enthusiasm will be contagious.
  • When considering your next iteration, focus on adjacent business processes. After automating your customer request process, for example, you might want to tackle the order process or the invoicing process.
  • Try and get several departments to automate their separate processes. That way, you'll maximize time savings.
  • Don't feel discouraged if subprocesses still involve manual tasks after a few iterations. It's better to automate 80% fast than spending ages attempting to go from 0% to 100% (in the latter case, your business might die trying).
  • Only automate subprocesses once you're highly familiar with them. You'll be able to distill patterns, which will clear the way for further automation.

Want to know more about the Business Process Automation Cycle? Download our free ultimate scaleup guide now!

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