Robotics, or automation, is something that can deliver huge benefits and savings. But the term robotics can sometimes be confusing. When I hear the word robot, my mind immediately jumps to Star Wars and R2D2 and C3PO. Others may think of the mechanical arms on factory production lines. In South Africa a robot is a traffic light. The likelihood is that none of these play a part in our roles.
The definition of a robot is evolving, and dictionaries can be slow to catch up. One online definition is:
“a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”
But we are now seeing that the machine part isn’t always necessary. In our world a robot can be a programme that performs the role of a human.
Much of the work in our organisations is performed on computers. We could build a robot to complete repetitive tasks by pressing keys on a keyboard and moving the mouse.
But this involves a lot of unnecessary effort. Our keyboards and mice are input devices, so why not skip the mechanical step and replicate the inputs? By thinking about a robot in this way it can highlight both the opportunities and limitations of a robot.
The word robot originates from an old Slavonic word “Robota” meaning “servitude”, “forced labour” or “drudgery”. When we look for drudgery in roles, we can see both the opportunities and benefits for using a robot. We all spend time on the drudgery, those repetitive routine tasks that need little or no thought. These are dull, unrewarding and don’t make use of our talents, our minds often wander, and we will make mistakes. It is more efficient, accurate and rewarding to automate this drudgery. This frees our people to focus on what they do best.
We can also see that a robot will have limitations and costs associated with it. It doesn’t need breaks and time off, but it still needs the same hardware, systems and licences. We spend time waiting for systems to respond and it is no different for robots. They will be quicker than a person but still need time to complete a task. A robot has the capacity to work 24 hours a day but only if the systems they need are online. So, we need to plan for them as we do the rest of our workforce.
Like a human we need to train a robot. If we exclude artificial intelligence, our robot will need a decision tree to follow and so we need to map our processes. This is where we spend a lot of the effort setting up robots, but also where we can get a lot of extra benefits. We will find broken processes, things that offer no value or create unnecessary effort. We should never try to automate a broken process or an unnecessary process. There is no value in becoming more efficient in making mistakes or wasting time. Simplifying or improving our processes can often deliver bigger benefits than the automation.
We need to remember that a robot will still need to be quality assessed. Unlike a human it will be consistent but that does not mean right. We need to check if it is making the right decisions for all the permutations on our process map. We then need to review this whenever there are changes to our systems and processes.
We also need to remember that when we are working, sometimes we will need to ask for help. Robots should be no different. We shouldn't expect them to be able to deal with every eventuality. This may not be possible and is rarely cost effective. When creating our process map, we need to map volumes for each step of the journey. Where we see small volumes, we can treat these as exceptions and allow the robot to hand these back to a person to deal with. If we spend more time building an automation process than we will save, then this is not a good use of resources.
We will already be using robots within our roles and may be building them. Simple VBA macros and excel and database queries are a form of robot. They replicate the repetitive tasks that take up a lot of an analyst’s time. Copying data from other sources, cleaning and filtering are all things we can easily automate. This reduces the amount of time analysts need to spend on reporting. This not only frees us up to add value but also means we get our insight to our stakeholders much more quickly. This gives them more time to act allowing us to increase the frequency of reporting. At the same time, we remove the risk of human error and so avoid rework and loss of trust.
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Author: Ian Roberston
Date Published: 18th August 2021