The roots of automation run deep; the term came to be in the 1940s when automatic devices and controls made their way into mechanized production lines. The concept of automation has been around since the Dutch invented the thermostat in 1620 and may even predate that. It started to gather more momentum in the early 20th century with the automation of telephone systems at the forefront, took shape at the Ford Motor Company under the direction of D.S. Harder, and continued to expand as the digital revolution took hold during the mid-1970s.
Suffice it to say, people love to automate and why not? Who doesn’t want their job to be a little bit easier, and even more importantly, safer?
In fact, automation is so common today that many economists point to the trend as the primary reason for lost jobs in the manufacturing sector. Just about every company of any size has some automated systems associated with their administration processes.
With benefits such as lower costs per unit, improved quality, and increased productivity, this trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, automation does come with some costs including:
- Unpredictable development costs
- Investment in tooling and systems to enable the automation
- Security threats
- Loss of flexibility as making changes to automated systems requires capital and time
- Training costs
With these costs at hand, it’s important to make sure that automation truly brings your company results.
What to Do Before You Automate
Automation can help businesses meet the goals of Lean Six Sigma by increasing production, quality, and customer satisfaction. This is accomplished by reducing human errors and streamlining the process. However, it’s critical to understand your processes, how they function, and how they can be improved from the start. Automating a weak process is unlikely to pay off.
Before you automate, add the following to your to-do list:
- Create a detailed process map to ensure positive ROI. Make note of where the process needs to be improved and your expectations for output.
- Include all the key players in the development of the process map for maximum buy-in and support.
- Start with one process at a time and perfect it before moving onto the next.
- Work with the simplest, most recurring processes at hand to begin to maximize results and minimize the use of resources.
- Focus on processes that require your employees to perform repetitive tasks and eat up man-hours.
- If your company experiences seasonal changes in workflow, target processes associated with this increase in workflow. You’ll save on the costs of hiring temporary employees and increase your company’s scalability.
- Ask yourself if automating the process will lead to any service gaps for your customers. Hidden service costs may arise if expectations already put in place cannot be met with the automated process.
- Consider when, where, and why the processes may change in the future. How can you be flexible while still achieving quality of output?
Spending the time up front to analyze your processes in depth before beginning automation is time well spent.
We Automated. Now What?
The automation process is never truly finished. After you’ve automated your key processes, it’s time to check out the results. Review what you’ve achieved and how you can improve. Utilize the DMAIC methodology and Lean Six Sigma to implement continuous improvement of processes, which drives quality output and helps to maintain the competitiveness of your business.
While there are several costs associated with automation, detailed planning and a thorough audit of your processes will ensure that the ROI is always positive.