Before You Automate, Simplify Your Processes

Hoping that technology will lead employees to do what they aren’t currently doing, managers and executives leap right into automation without giving due process to the foundational steps of “simplify” and “standardize.” Mistakenly, they think technology will jump-start behavioral change or define a more robust strategy.

Often, however, lobbing technology solutions into a complex system ends up creating more activities rather than fewer, and this builds operational clutter inside the organization. Skipping steps actually results in decreased efficiency and productivity.

Consider your new-product development process. It includes strategy, idea generation, concept testing, business analysis, development, test marketing and commercialization. Each stage functions like a gate; if an idea is unable to clear the hurdles presented at that stage, it can’t advance to the next. When it comes to technology, however, it’s not uncommon for managers to jump right into installing a new platform or software and then mandating its immediate use.

Using a systematic process that is heavily front-loaded will ensure successful outcomes. The three-phase process of simplify, standardize, and automate (SSA) allows executives to be clear on what problems they are hoping to solve and new opportunities they want the solution to create. Returns on technology investments become easier to model after the first two steps. By establishing milestones of success, the investments of time, energy, and capital are maximized. Before applying technology, perfect your analog process.

First, determine if the process you’re considering for a technological makeover is worth simplifying. Is the process essential or superfluous? Investing valuable resources into technology that automates a superfluous process compromises the health of your business. To identify the value of a process or system, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the basic deliverable our customers want?
  • What does our customer do with our deliverable?
  • How can we give our customers what they want in the fewest steps possible?

The answers will remind you of the essence of your business and what you need to satisfy your customers.

Before investing a penny, require your team to execute the process steps manually, without any technological assistance. This brings clarity and agreement on outcomes and standards, and highlights any existing dysfunction. Analyze where the process is working well and where it’s not. Typically, the result of this manual assessment is that you can reduce the amount of automation required.

Encourage your team to identify extra, unnecessary steps and edit the process down. The ultimate goal of automation is to improve reliability and reduce the time to complete a transaction. Applying technology to a simplified process will achieve greater improvements in both those areas than applying it to a complicated process.

Once you’ve articulated the essential processes for your business, assume that your top performers will be implementing them. Technology investments are often resource intensive, so why build them around your lowest-performing percentile? Use your top performers to define the best practices and make them standard.

Without identifiable standards, you risk spending more on technology/ies than needed. The goal of standardization is to increase the efficiency of producing the best possible outcome and facilitate collaboration. Blindly applying patchwork of technology is not going to help you reach that goal.

Once you have a simplified and standardized process, apply your technology and automate. Ultimately, this can be the most challenging (or daunting) stage for an organization, because it often results in lost jobs or workforce reductions. Given the degree to which labor shortages are expected to constrain growth, being able to do more work with fewer people is becoming necessary rather than discretionary. By automating routine tasks, organizations can nurture and develop their creative knowledge workers.

Viewed from this perspective, automation augments rather than annihilates. It can expand skill sets, enhance business processes, and amplify business success. Automation can provide an opportunity for workers, teams—even executives and entire companies—to skill up.

Companies that focus on growth in both personal and professional dimensions are poised to use automation in this way. Rather than automation, focus on augmentation. Ironically, that all starts with simplification.


Ray Attiyah :Ray Attiyah is the founder of Definity Partners, a hands-on, business-training firm that integrates process redesign and leadership-behavior modeling. He developed the Run-Improve-Grow system to inspire the best leaders to reach for higher-hanging fruit. His newest book is Run Improve Grow: Your Roadmap from Firefighting to Bold Business Growth.