Muscle Memory for Your Organization

Thursday, May 1, 2014 by Rainer Stropek

Automate administrative business processes – does it pay off? We have to deal with this question in nearly every customer project. Creation of invoices, exchanging data between IT systems, validating time sheet records against company policies, etc. I am sure you will find dozens of such examples in your own firm, too. But automating such processes or at least part of them is expensive. You will have to document the processes, you will need to buy or develop software, you will have to deal with concerns and objections of your staff, and you will have to train employees and possibly suppliers and/or customers, too. That sounds like a lot of headache. You should stick to manual processes, shouldn’t you?

In this article we address 5 topics you should consider before and during a project for automating administrative business processes. Additionally, we point out some functions in time cockpit that can help you in such projects.

Tip 1: Focus on Delivering Exceptional Value to Customers

Before you start process automation, you should ask yourself why you do it. The only reason why many people consider such projects is cost reduction. Without any question, this fact is important. However, the most important companies focus on those processes that deliver exceptional value to their customers. Administrative processes that are just a necessity should be like muscle memory for your organization. They should be “performed without conscious effort” to “create maximum efficiency” (Wikipedia).

Our tip: Have a list of your administrative business processes. Categorize them by business value for your customers. Is the flexibility and interactivity that manual execution of a certain process provides really important for your customers? If not, consider automating the process and shift your team’s effort and focus to other processes.

Tip 2: Remove Exceptions to Enable Automation

Time cockpit is a project time tracking solution covering many aspects of an ERP solution for professional services companies, too. Lots of projects with customers have taught us that exceptions are what makes process automation expensive. All your invoices look the same except for one specific customer. You send project reports to customers via monthly emails except for one who insists of getting it on paper. All your customers receive monthly invoices except for one who wants to pay on a quarterly basis. These are the kind of exceptions I am talking about.

Our tip: Streamline the processes you want to automate before you start the project. Question exceptions even if this will lead to discussions with customers, suppliers, or employees. Removing exceptions will make your business process automation project easier and will free your team’s mind for dealing with the important processes.

Tip 3: Involve Your Employees Early in the Process

Automating a process that was done manually before naturally reduces the workload for some employees. They will likely be worried about losing their jobs. Such employees will emphasize the problems of automating administrative processes instead of supporting the projects as much as they could.

Our tip: Before you start an automation project, talk with affected employees about how they can develop additional skills for delivering a higher value for your customers. Their future role should be clear and worth striving for. Such employees will do their best to remove obstacles for process automation instead of keeping them up.

Tip 4: No Team is Too Small for Efficiency

We regularly hear arguments like: “It does not make sense to automate creation of invoices in our company, we are too small for that.” Automating administrative processes is not a matter of an organizations size, it is a matter of efficiency. Even a very small team should try to be as efficient as possible.

In small companies, administrative work is often hidden effort. Here are two examples: Reimbursements of travelling expenses are calculated by the company leaders on weekends or during long working nights. A lot of money is paid to an external accountant for creating some business reports month by month. Interests are lost because of delayed creation of invoices.

Our tip: In small companies, automating administrative processes is easier that it is in large enterprises. In a small team the general mindset should be characterized by striving for efficiency and delivering maximum value for customers. If routine processes are muscle memory, they cannot stop your team from growing.

Tip 5: Automated Processes = Risk Reduction

Companies typically compare the costs of manual process execution with the cost of automating a process. Instead, you should evaluate a potential process automation project based on the costs of not being able to execute the process manually. The reason for this is that a manual process is often tight to a single persons. They have the process knowledge. If they are absent, it might become hard and expensive to keep your business running.

Secondly, automated processes are like a safety net for exceptional situations. Well trained athletes are better able to handle critical situations like a crash. Their body will react unconsciously because of muscle memory. It’s the same with automated processes. They just work, you can rely on that. Your mind is free for other things.

Let’s think about an example: A small software development team might handle support cases manually. Typically this works great. People value their responsiveness and flexibility in support. Introducing a structured system with defined escalation procedures seems way too expensive and bureaucratic to them. Now imagine what would happen if two team members who cover a large share of the support work have an incident together. They will be sick for many weeks. How many customers will turn away from the team because critical support cases will be lost? Will the company have to pay for violating support SLAs?

Our tip: If you think about whether it makes sense to automate a process, don’t forget to consider what it would mean if you lose the ability to execute it manually for a certain period of time. Automating processes are sometimes a good way to reduce risks.

How Can Time Cockpit Help?

Time cockpit is a great project time tracking solution out of the box. However, it is also a platform that can be extended and customized so that it perfectly fits to your business processes. Here are some examples for what other customers have already done with time cockpit in terms of automating administrative business processes:

  1. Extend time cockpit’s built-in invoicing capabilities so that your monthly invoices are created automatically.
  2. Automate you internal processes for vacation approvals.
  3. Let time cockpit manage the process for travel cost reimbursements.
  4. Automatically generate and send status reports about project efforts on a regular basis.
  5. Setup automatic reminders in case of delayed customer payments.
  6. Tailor time cockpit’s custom/project/task hierarchy to your needs so that project managers have data about budget vs. actual effort at their fingertips.
  7. Raise cost awareness by setting up a system for automated internal costing.

You are interested in extending and customizing time cockpit but you do not have the necessary IT skills? Contact us, we offer training classes, workshops, and consulting services.

Do You Need a Business Process Automation Software?

Good business software packages enable you to automate your specific business processes within their domain. Time cockpit for instance is customizable and extensible to a very large degree. However, it focusses on project time tracking and topics closely related to that.

For many companies, automating processes within one application like time cockpit is a good starting point. A dedicated Business Process Automation (BPA) solution might be an overkill in the first run. As your company grows, you will have to deal with automating complex processes spanning multiple IT systems and/or handling long-running workflows with lots of human interaction points. At that point you might consider specialized software like e.g. SharePoint Workflow Solutions or ProLogics FireStart.

Integrating time cockpit into BPA solutions has always been possible. Multiple customers have already done it.

Depending on the technology of the BPA system, you can choose between time cockpit’s .NET API and its brand new Web API.

The following image illustrates the concept:

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