Is RPA the Tool of Old Plant Managers Who Haven’t Died Yet?

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hosting an automation panel at the Chicago OAISS event, hosted by IRPA. On the panel were David Brain from Symphony, A.J. Hanna from Ascension Health Ministry Service Center, and Adam Devine from WorkFusion. To these distinguished panelists, I posed the following question:

“Is Robotic Process Automation the tool of old plant managers who haven’t died yet?”

So, first, let me explain myself.

The early 20th century provides the perfect context for my question. Right up to the electric-powered revolution, energy was often generated using steam. In most factories, steam engines were used to rotate a massive driveshaft that would run down the middle of factories. This turning driveshaft was central to a factory's design. All types of machinery would be stationed alongside it, to be animated by pulleys and gears that extended out. Ultimately, this led to plant design and production that were very linear and sequential.


"An old, steam-powered factory. Due to the need for a central driveshaft, plant design was very linear and sequential."

Fast forward a few decades and a new power source was gaining popularity: electricity. Electric motors quickly overtook steam engines in factories because of their versatility, cleanliness, and reduced noise level. Consequently, plant managers simply unbolted and removed the old steam-powered machines and replaced them with electric motors. Factory layouts rarely changed. In fact, they remained linear and were still packed along the center. At best, this was incremental innovation. At worst, it was entrenched behavior and adherence to the old operational habits of the past. In the research of economic historian Paul David at Stanford University, it was found that productivity as a result of the shift from steam to electricity didn't improve much at all, mainly because of the poor, steam-centered layout. It wasn’t until the old plant managers left (or passed away – for the sake of dramatic literary effect) that a new generation of managers was able to innovate and think differently about their environment. Free from old constraints, the new managers had the opportunity to re-examine factory designs and completely reorganize the antiquated machine placement to more optimized layouts, based on the technological advancements that preceded them.


"A depiction of an electromagnetic induction coil. Pioneered by Michael Faraday in the early 19th century, this technology became central to electric motor design in the 'Second Industrial Revolution' of electricity."

So here’s where my question to the panelists comes in. In looking for ways to use Robotics Process Automation (RPA), is our industry (outsourcing and shared services) acting like the old plant managers of the industrial revolution? Are we looking at the old, linear way of doing things and merely ‘unbolting’ the human ‘machines’ in favor of software machines? Do the current solutions only look to replace the workforce, rather than retooling and designing entirely new configurations?

The answer is, it depends. It depends on how you approach RPA and your overall digital operations strategy.

Yes, RPA can be a tool for old plant managers if you view transformation through an analog lens. If you don’t apply RPA following a set of best practices, or you act within a strict adherence to the current state, with no regard for the liberating effects automation can have on process redesign, then you might be like those old plant managers. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is occurring in some environments. For instance, if you're an enterprise that uses a BPO provider, this is most likely happening behind the closed doors of your BPO provider's delivery centers – where they automate incrementally while they dare not tell you they are optimizing for the sake of their own margin.

On the other hand, change doesn't need to be so incremental, nor so subversive. Take Symphony’s S.A.V.O. Methodology for instance. The ‘S’ stands for Simplify. In this stage, we take a fresh look at the ‘plant layout’ and work very closely with clients to reconfigure the factory before the ‘machinery’ is swapped out. This act of transformation is one in which we employ the best of Design Thinking, process re-engineering, and creativity to ensure we're not just automating 'your mess for less'.

"We believe that RPA could indeed be what electric motors were to the old, clunky steam engines – a better, faster way to get work done."

Ultimately, if RPA is considered as a part of a holistic work redesign, it can be a powerful catalyst to kick-start a new era of work design and productivity. Looking back at the electrification of factories, we believe that RPA could indeed be what electric motors were to the old, clunky steam engines - a better, faster way to get work done. And, deployed correctly, the productivity gains can be nothing short of spectacular.

Current technology presents an exciting proposition in the pursuit of robust digital operations. If executed properly, RPA provides the opportunity to reconfigure work not only for the RPA era of automation, but for the purposes of laying a solid foundation for other tools down the road such as cognitive, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Having the proper outlook can allow one to proactively accommodate these technologies when they are enterprise-ready – fit to be part of this "Future of Work" toolkit.

At Symphony, we think that certain tools (RPA) are ripe and ready to support transformation, while others (cognitive and machine learning) are rapidly approaching enterprise maturity where they will soon be able to contribute to overcoming the problems we help our clients solve every day.

As for the panel of experts - everyone gave great answers to my question. I particularly enjoyed A.J. Hanna's response. Informed by his unrivaled experience in making big things happen with automation, he reported that at Ascension Ministry Service Center, they really do look to redesign and transform the organization, rather than simply use automation tools for digitizing a set of old processes. They do so by using a combination of best practices from manufacturing, and adapting them to seek out areas of opportunity for incremental, as well as significant, operational change. It's enlightened leadership and foresight like this that gives me hope for enterprises as they look to harness the "Future of Work".

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