Supply Chain Trends

How to automate your operations with an easy formula

Written by
Jonathan Porter
Jun 19, 2022
10:00 am
minute read

Automation is not a silver bullet. This buzzword has infiltrated the supply chain industry, but it can be more than just a fancy word. It can be powerful.

Automation is one of the more common ways businesses try to reduce costs. They attempt to eliminate time-consuming manual tasks, but how can you identify the areas of a company that would benefit the most from automation? 

It's impossible to get any meaningful ROI by just blanket-layering automation. Expecting results from indiscriminately automating your systems and tasks gets your business nowhere.  

But there's hope. Successful automation projects follow a formula that helps identify what tasks and processes you should automate. But, if you aren't careful, you could shift the bottleneck — what you're trying to automate away — around or introduce unforeseen inefficiencies in other areas.

Automation is a potent tool, but you must be intentional with it. This article explains a formula that can help make your next automation project successful — whether it's for your business or client.

The Formula for Successful Automation

This formula is not as cut and dry as a high school math problem. For your automation planning, you must consider the different factors and goals at stake, which change constantly.

Let's break down the steps:

1. Start by mapping the entire process.

Start at the end of a process and work backward. Doing this helps eliminate unintentional assumptions and biases from people who think they know the process. 

2. Start with the last step of a process and continually work backward to identify all of the steps required to complete that process. 

Do this for as many processes as possible in your/your customer's operations. Then, document all these with flowcharts — visual maps with blocks representing process steps. You can get as fancy as you want with these process maps, but the most important thing is capturing the steps in each process.

3. Once you have all your processes mapped, go through an exercise where you identify two components related to time:

Ask yourself: How much time (or effort) is required within each process block? How much time is there in between each step in the process? 

These answers give you a realistic view of how long it takes for a single process to flow through. But it's also the beginning of where you start to identify areas for automation.

4. From there, you immediately start looking at the highest amount of time and asking "why."

The "5 whys" of automation

The "5 whys" exercise can help you get to the bottom of what causes that amount of time required. So, how do you complete this exercise? Ask "why" five times to uncover some unnecessary steps you don't have to automate. After all, you have to eliminate the biggest win. 

This exercise will help you identify areas with similar root causes. The next step is to start trying to group areas of excess time into similar causes or actions. 

For example, let's say your process is the picking, packing and shipping from your warehouse. You notice three times within that process that inventory is waiting on the loading dock. 

In this case, maybe the "5 Whys" uncover that all three of those times, the inventory waits multiple hours just because the supervisor had to sign off on something on the product, and the supervisor only walks onto the loading dock twice per day.

That kind of insight could lead you to recommend a system that automatically emails and alerts the supervisor when inventory needs sign-off. Or, better yet, a system that lets the supervisor sign off from wherever they are without having to physically walk to the dock (this may not be possible, but this kind of discovery can lead to these answers). 

Now, you've just identified a single system that could eliminate/automate inefficiencies in three separate areas of the process. Those are the first areas to tackle for automation — the grouped pieces of the process where you can get the most wins. 

This exercise is also valuable because you've already built your business case for this. You have to equate time with money for your customer. In this example, the entire process spans eight hours, and you've identified three hours we can automate out of the process. You can calculate an automation project's ROI and share that information with your client.  

That is easy because you have the data behind your automation process mapping exercises.

From there, you can work on quickly deploying your new business changes, so you and your customers can begin reaping their rewards.

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