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THE SYNERGY OF CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT AND AUTOMATION




by Lauren Hisey



In today's ever-challenging and changing business landscape, organizations seek ways to maximize efficiencies and productivity to help increase profit margins without sacrificing employee satisfaction and improving the customer experience. While many organizations have started implementing different automation types, many are not seeing the benefits or ROI they thought they would see. By combining Continuous Improvement concepts with the technological aspect of automation, organizations can unlock efficiencies and productivity without losing employee satisfaction and improving the customer experience. Improving the customer experience is missing from many automation projects today.


Continuous Improvement is a systematic methodology that combines both Lean and Six Sigma. These exact methodologies allow businesses for years to gain efficiencies without using technology. It is a system that repeatedly allows for small improvements that lead to significant results using the tools and techniques that Toyota, Nissan, GE, and Motorola used. These methodologies challenge the status quo to help identify the inefficiencies and bottlenecks. To top it off, CI uses a data-driven approach for decision-making, employee engagement, and promotes learning and adaptability. The critical aspects of Continuous Improvement that can be used with automation are:


Identifying the right opportunities for Improvement: When Robotic Process Automation (RPA) first came to the scene, many organizations wanted to be some of the first early adaptors of the new tool. But too often, RPA was applied in business areas and processes that did provide the best ROI. Continuous Improvement offers a systematic approach to choosing the right places for improvements, understanding the business value, and issues being solved.


Setting goals and metrics: When RPA was first applied, many organizations did not set goals or metrics with their RPA projects. How do you know if you are improving if you don't measure something? Without measuring the impact, it is hard to justify to the CFO that automation is necessary. Setting SMART project goals and metrics helps to show the current state and the improvement of the projects.


Implementing changes: Many RPA projects were implemented without involving the people who use the process. IT often did the automation in a silo without thinking about the "customers" of their work. Continuous Improvement removes the silos by involving people from all parts of the process. The idea of going to Gemba can be easily applied with automation because the "customers" of the process usually have the best ideas to help design the automation.


Continuous Learning and Adaption: Continuous Improvement creates a culture and mindset of learning and change management. Too often in the past, when automation was implemented, it was done without the learning mindset. Automation is just like Continuous Improvement in that you need to continuously improve to ensure that the business processes are continually enhanced due to the business landscape and advancing technologies.


Automation involves the use of technology and machines to perform the tasks. Automation nowadays can take on many forms, from basic RPA to Intelligent Automation (IA) that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Optical character recognition (OCR), Natural Language Processing (NLP), Generative AI, and many more. These technologies can perform tasks or processes with or without human intervention ranging from simple repetitive tasks to complex workflows to integrate processes and systems. We use these technologies every day without even realizing it. We will see new uses with the increase of technological advancements. But instead of being afraid of what these automatons will do, we need to embrace them because they make things better by removing the mundane. Automation helps reduce human error, provides faster results, increases resource optimization, and improves scalability if implemented correctly. Automation will free up human resources to develop more strategies and creative activities.


It is time to integrate both to reach the benefits truly. That marriage between Continuous Improvement and Automation forms a powerful combination to optimize business. Through this combination, organizations can achieve both incremental and transformative improvements. It will help organizations get the true Digital Transformations they want with their system upgrades and moving from on-premise to the cloud.


When thinking about the integration of Continuous Improvement and Automation together, it is best to get back to the basics of Continuous Improvement. It is not about anything fancy but just knowing the right mindset and culture to apply to the organizations. Too often, technology is thought of as something complex; while it is complex, we can approach it. The first thing to remember is that technology is just a tool. It is the people of the process that are complex. It is crucial to make the processes and technology work for the people versus making people work for the technology. The changing mindset moves us from fear of technology to embrace it because technology is not going away. As we have seen with the introduction of more AI, especially generative AI, things are moving faster than we expected. We are in another Industrial revolution.


As we embark on these journeys, we must consider some key areas to integrate Continuous Improvement and Automation. These key areas will help to ensure that you and your people are getting the best out of technology and cultivating the Continuous Improvement mindset.


1.Value Stream Mapping and Process Mapping: It is hard to automate a process if you don't know the processes. First, you must use the Value Stream Map to understand the customer, systems flow, etc. It would help if you also mapped out the detailed current state process map for each area of the Value Steam to identify the problem areas. While mapping out these processes, you can also incorporate process and task mining to maximize your analysis further.


2.Identifying and prioritizing areas for Automation: By using the Continuous Improvement tools (FMEA, Prioritization Matrix, Hypothesis testing, etc.) to identify the right places for automation, give organization has a better ability to identify the right processes and make strategic decisions on the type of technology to use. It is all about maximizing impact to get the biggest bang for your buck. Just as we go through the DMAIC phase, the systematic approach will help pick the right areas.


3.Data-driven decisions: The idea behind using math and statistics to make the right decisions is essential here. The data quantifies the decision-making process. While we use qualitative tools to point us in the right direction, the data moves us from expressive to concrete decisions. Too many automation projects were based on a touchy-feel versus using data to make decisions. Moving from the Define to Measure to Analyze phase, we use data to move us in the right direction. By implementing automation in the right areas, we can use more process and task mining to help with the Continuous Improvement mindset.


4.Lean with Automation: Lean emphasizes eliminating waste, standardization, reducing non-value add, and creating value for the customer. These concepts can help direct the right places to implement automation. By using Lean principles during the process analysis, organizations can identify the right processes that are candidates for automation. Process Improvements may need to be done before applying the automation. Using Lean principles, automation will be set up for success instead of failure.


5.Encouraging Innovation and Learning: One of the beautiful aspects of Continuous Improvement is the encouragement of Learning and innovation. Applying this to the culture inspires people to be more adaptable to change. It empowers them to try new things independently. It is through this time of culture that allows the people of the process to experiment and learn that automation can help them. This is where you build partnerships between IT and all organizations. People become empowered to take on some of the simple automation themselves through the low code tools. This is where the connection between people, processes, and technology molds. This is the Lean way!



Automation can significantly improve our lives and efficiency, but there is a thing of too much or over-automation. It is important to remember that you do not wish to misuse automation and become too ridged with it. We have all seen the stories of organizations that have become so ridged based on 5S that it took away the creativity in the workplace. The same concept applies here with automation. You need to strike a balance! You need to ensure that the automation is helping the people and not restricting them. That is one of the reasons why the integration of Continuous Improvement and automation is so powerful if they are used correctly. It is not always about being first with using the new tools. It is about finding the right way to use the tools.


Continuous Improvement and Automation are two powerhouses with great dynamic forces that can help increase efficiency while maximizing their people. It can help remove the waste of underutilized talent. It's part of the Continuous Improvement journey that can foster a cultural mindset of learning and innovation that can propel the modern business in ways that have never been thought of before. While challenges can arise, this integration can minimize these challenges.


Gone are the days of thinking about technology as a stand-alone thing, and you only need to implement it once. The linkage of Continuous Improvement and Automation cultivates a forward-thinking mindset that is continually improving. By embracing this alliance, it will allow organizations to navigate the challenges that we are facing at every turn nowadays. This very integration will help people and organizations unlock their potential and lay a framework that can be used now and in the future.


 

Lauren Hisey is not your typical consultant or coach. She uses a calming influence, Continuous Improvement, Lean Six Sigma, AI knowledge through regular conversations to help create effective change within any business. Lauren helps businesses to improve profitability and culture to drive sustainable growth. She has spent 13 years living and breathing Continuous Improvement as a coach, consultant, trainer, and speaker with different sizes businesses, universities, podcasts, and various networking associations. She has a passion for Continuous Improvement and loves to show others how to use it effectively in their businesses and personal life.

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