Lessons on the Road to RPA ft. MAN Energy Solutions & Thomas Cook
We speak with Fernando Nunes (FN), Senior Process Automation Architect, MAN Energy Solutions and Samantha Clark (SC), Lean Transformation Leader, Thomas Cook, two automation experts at differing points of their Robotic Process Automation (RPA) transformation journey, about the lessons they have learnt so far and their plans for the future.
What is the current status of your RPA journey?
FN: “We are still in the very first phase of what we envision to be a long-term embracement of RPA with four business cases being exercised at the moment. But, while we recognise RPA as a good technology and initiative, we don’t see it as an answer for everything. We believe that a hybrid approach would bring more benefit for our organisation. This involves getting the best of the business process management tools and combining them with the RPA tools for end-to-end automation. This is not about simply automating on top of the applications we already have but building something new as we lean, shrink and optimise the existing processes.
Over the years there has been a switch within the IT organisation. We are not a solo provider of a solution anymore - our job is to empower the business to do their own initiatives. We want to avoid the IT bottleneck - Before, the business would come to IT with a problem and IT would look at it, analyse and deliver something – that’s an old fashioned approach. We seek to empower, provide a framework, a portfolio of tools and an infrastructure to allow our business to take the ownership of their process. “
SC: “Last year, we brought all of our back-office processes that were outsourced to India back in-house and in order to do that we set up a new shared service centre in Palma. That is the first joint service centre across our Group Finance business and it provides a global service for all of what we do from the UK to Germany, France, Belgium and the Nordics. In order to make our business more efficient and streamlined we didn’t want to just recruit a like for like - we had 450+ heads in India and we wanted to improve efficiency in that. The way we chose to do so was by implementing RPA to reduce the manual, labour intensive, repetitive tasks in our back office finance processes.
In reality, our RPA journey has been quite different to what we initially expected. The processes are a lot more complex than we initially thought, so we have had to adapt along the way. For example, rather than automating with RPA end-to-end, we are now trying to split each process down into smaller buckets of things that are identical, similar, or just not the same at all. Because of that, the plan that we had 11-12 months ago is different to what we have now.”
How have these changes been received by the individuals they impact?
FN: “In general, this switch has been very positive, but the negative is that we are adding one more piece to a puzzle. We have a BPA tool that we use heavily and people say: ‘okay, I can do RPA, but now we are talking about RPA plus something else’. There is a misconception that in spite of the fact that have switched to this new approach, that we in IT are talking about creating an entirely new workflow behind the scenes.
It’s nothing that IT needs to do. A lot of the companies already have something in-house that they can use, like office 365 for example. There’s no code behind it – nothing. Users just have a drag and drop control. And they can actually build all those artefacts themselves.
SC: “Going back to the very beginning, people worried the second they heard the words automation and efficiency, but this isn’t about cutting jobs. This is about reducing the amount of manual work so that the people in our new financial shared service centre can do quality and value adding activities that they don’t currently have time for.
We started our journey quite confident about what we wanted to do and on paper it looked great. In reality, it was very different. Have there been some changes in attitudes? I think a change in attitudes is probably too strong, but there been some concerns over whether RPA is the right tool. My job is to work with our stake holders, process owners and team leads to turn that around and convince people that RPA is the right thing to do and flexibility in our plan going forward is allowing us to do that.”
Looking back in hindsight, is there anything that you would have done differently?
FN: “In revisiting the business process and thinking about how we can improve it, we realised that we can’t force our business to keep running in a certain way just because the technology is created for that particular scenario.
We need to revisit the process often and lean it. Often doing that demands some sort of automation for optimisation of the process. When you do this automation we are not necessarily talking about a big IT project. We may be talking about just another drag and drop solution which has been shown along the way to be successful in our company.
I think that because I have this personal journey from being a developer, then working on process and now RPA I’m compelled to reinforce this lean methodology along the things we implement.”
SC: “We made the assumption that because the processes we wanted to make more efficient were in a back-office environment, they were ripe for RPA. Some of them absolutely have been, but a big majority haven’t. They’re a lot more complex than we assumed. One of the main issues was that when we were bringing the back-office work from India back in-house to Palma, we didn’t have the ability to go out to India and look at those processes for ourselves. You need to go and look at the processes to have a true understanding. Make use of the business analysts that you have. If necessary, fly them out and give them the time to sit with each one of the concerned process owners and SMEs so that they can develop an understanding that is reflective of reality.
The second thing is IT infrastructure. We believed we had the right infrastructure, but in truth, it has been a massive challenge. When we started, we didn’t have RPA experts in our IT team. We have since learned it is essential to have RPA experts in this area when starting a new journey.”
How do you envisage the future of Digital Transformation?
FN: “When we’re looking at our business process and the potentials for automating it, there is often a point where that process is interrupted by some human centric task i.e. someone needs to write an email or assess an Excel spreadsheet. There is still a gap when transforming unstructured to structured data. But, as we get more advanced and our modules get better trained, we will see less and less of humans being involved in this end-to-end process and instead using their energy on things that humans are uniquely skilled at creating. I don’t think there are many companies that have achieved the so-called RPA 4.0, which is 100% cognitive automation. That’s the goal everybody is heading to - in the future, we want to have an Alexa-like device so that we can just say, ‘hey, create a purchase order’ and the device would ask a few questions and the whole thing would happen. “
SC: “In terms of Group Finance at Thomas Cook, it would be great to go into the AI arena. We have an ABBYY tool for optical character recognition, which is great, but it can’t do 100%. So, the ability to work with attended and unattended robots and teach them to reduce the number of exceptions is absolutely something we should look at going forward.”