Business Process Mapping to Prepare Your Processes for Successful RPA

Business Process Mapping to Prepare Your Processes for Successful RPA

A company full of self-starters – that’s the organizational dream. In a perfect world, we don’t have to be super prescriptive about the way our work gets done. But in a less than perfect world of cumbersome bureaucratic processes and technology, inevitably we have to establish rules around the way our work can be done that are well-documented, inexplicably clear, and easily distributed across our teams.

What we know about employee handbooks and training manuals though is that human beings very seldom have the attention span or retention capabilities to absorb that information well enough to implement it consistently. The results are a lot of inconsistent workflows, and a certain degree of chagrin in leadership when it comes to process documentation.

And who can blame them?

When the outcome of hours of work in process documentation is a 75-page PDF that no one in their right mind is going to sit down and truly read, it’s hard to realize process documentation as a priority. I mean, where’s the return on that effort?

In this guide though, we’ll present a solution that’s not only effective in training a newly hired employee, but acts as an operational cleanse to flush the inconsistencies and bad processes out, and set forth a simple, scannable, and immediately translatable point of truth that employees will follow and take the time to learn from. 

First, an operational vocabulary lesson

It sounds self-explanatory, but oftentimes what we find is that the language surrounding process efficiency feels interchangeable, and this creates confusion during the documentation process.

Processes are any type of work activity that is done to produce a specific result. A process may be defined by language rather than granular workflow maps, using standard operating procedures (SOPs) and other language-based documentation, often in Word files, PDF formats, or in a cloud-based wiki product, such as Confluence or Notion.

What’s the difference between a process and a workflow?

Workflows are more prescriptive than processes. Workflows are the sets of micro steps that make up processes. They’re often repeatable, and follow the same pattern in the same chronological order of events. A workflow contains a sequence of steps within a process, and it’s within these workflows that efficiency improvements can be made to streamline the process as a whole.

Why Process Documentation Is Critical to Organizational Scalability

Unfortunately, business is laden with plenty of bureaucratic box-checking that doesn’t always add value to the business, but is nonetheless important. We call these necessary evils, in official technical terminology. Things that fall into the bucket of important-but-not-valuable work include account reconciliation, document scrubbing, revenue cycle management – all critically necessary to the function of many businesses, but ultimately, not increasing productivity or helping the company to take on more business and to grow.

Critical to the value-add conversation surrounding work is knowing which processes provide entryways to growth: handling more claims, hiring necessary team members, onboarding more customers. When we have these clearly defined values surrounding what positive growth means for a business or a department, we can then assess the necessary resources it will take to meet or exceed those visions for success.

But what happens when there’s a disparity between a target and the available resources? What happens where there simply aren’t enough humans around to take on more work?

Setting new hires up for success with workflow documentation

Organizations that seek scalability ahead of process efficiency are doing things in reverse order, and it’s something like turning a group of toddlers loose in a room full of Play Doh and sharpies. You can hire all you want, but at the end of the day, without process guardrails in place, you’re likely inviting more problems that will hinder your scalability than help it.

Without process documentation at the workflow level, you’re setting new hires up for a challenging work environment where they’re likely to bring an increase in errors with an increase in departmental productivity – an incremental increase in growth, for a very, very high cost to implement.

You can’t optimize what you don’t document

In the absence of thorough process documentation, many organizations often find that different members of their team complete tasks in different ways. When the operational leaders look at the time spent on certain tasks, it’s impossible to determine how to improve productivity outside of hiring more workers – a less than desirable proposition, given the current labor market.

But with thorough process documentation, team members have clear expectations and instructions to adhere to. Processes are more likely to be completed with more consistency, and greater efficiency. You’re able to look at processes with a new level of attribution, and do what you do best: use your strategic, analytical mind to find opportunities for growth in the data points.

How to Document Your Processes

We build automation based on process documentation, which has made the customer success team here at Thoughtful experts in what truly thorough process and workflow documentation looks like.

There are a few lessons that have come out of working with our customers in mapping out their processes for them:

  1. You can never be too granular. Document your processes with as much detail as possible, right down to every click and keystroke
  2. These processes need to be living, breathing files, but files with which changes are tracked and monitored, and locked between discussions surrounding process change approvals
  3. Screenshots and videos are nearly essential in making sure that the user has everything they need to complete the process directly

It’s a lot of information to organize, and naturally the question then becomes, what program do you need to use to create, organize, and share these process documents?

What is a process design document (PDD)?

At Thoughtful, we use something that we refer to as a process design document, or a PDD. A PDD is a document that our customer success team creates with our customers who want to work with us to create new automation software for their existing processes and systems.

But in order to create an automation for a process that’s unique to their business, our development team needs a very detailed, and very clear process document that outlines every task and workflow within each process down to the micro level.

We create these documents, or PDDs, for our customers after completing what we call a process walkthrough call, where we walk with the customer’s team’s workflows from start to finish.

Using Airtable to create process organization ahead of RPA implementation

We use a simple program called Airtable to create our PDDs ahead of developing our customers’ bot solutions for them. Doing this gives us a blueprint to reference back to, and also provides the client with valuable process documentation that they can then use internally to track changes to their processes, educate and onboard new employees, and even use to communicate process bottlenecks with and leadership stakeholders.

This invaluable tool enables us to get a closer look at a client’s use case before our development team gets work underway.

What Is Airtable?

Airtable is an easy-to-use SaaS platform that gives organizations a low-code way to create, share, and collaborate on connected databases. Many teams use it to visualize their workflows, track inventory, and even for customer-relationship management.

What we use it to do is to document a company’s process at the macro and micro levels, so that these processes are not only automatable, but easy to audit and optimize.

How to Set Up Your Processes In Airtable

Airtable is remarkably easy to use, even for non-technical users. Once you connect with our customer support team, we’ll work with you to review your processes, and make sure they’re in a format that our development team can work with.

For right now, your only goal is to get clear on these three things:

  1. What is the process, click by click and keystroke by keystroke?
  2. Who completes this process within your organization?
  3. Does every person do it in the same way?

If the answer to question three is no, that’s okay – we can work on addressing discrepancies with process consistency once you get a clearer picture of what that process is, and where the deviations lie.

Using the PDD to document your processes

Because the insight we need into our customers’ processes for automation is so granular, we use a nested structure in Airtable to organize tasks by groupings:

Airtable divides steps into three categories:

  • Macro steps. These are a group of related actions, such as reconciling payments or invoicing.
  • Records. Within each macro step sits a record. This is a step within that macro step, such as logging into a platform.
  • Descriptions. Within each record is a field for a description. This is where you document every click.

Here’s an example of what a process looks like when documented under this structure in Airtable:

Process mapping example in Airtable

You’ll see that even a task as simple as logging in to Stripe has been broken down click by click in the description column. This is so that during the design of a bot, the program can be designed to execute on these steps exactly like a human would, and to your specifications, following your processes, and adhering to your security practices.

Our step by step process for PDD creation

We’ve found that one of the easiest ways to start documenting processes in Airtable is to start by recording the process, from start to finish, using the screen recording app, Loom.

  1. Install Loom into your browser. This free browser extension allows you to record your screen, as well as yourself, and is free for up to the first 25 videos to use.
  2. Choose a process to document first. The best process candidates for Airtable are those that are repeatable and logic-based, which means that they don’t require human creativity or reasoning to complete. Even if there are variables in how the task is completed, so long as those can be determined by a clear set of rules, it makes sense to use Airtable to document them.
  3. Set up a recording session for the process walkthrough. If you have inconsistencies among the members of your team in how this process is completed, now is a good time to convene and take notes on these discrepancies during the call.
  4. Record the process walkthrough and narrate it entirely. You’ll be reviewing this recording to map out your process in Airtable later.
  5. Outline your macro steps in our PDD template. 
  6. Review your recording, and use our PDD template to start documenting your process. This is often a scenario that’s ideal for dual monitors. Set up your recording on one screen, and your PDD template on the other, and begin adding records to each micro step, documenting each click and keystroke with complete accuracy.
  7. Add screenshots or recordings to your PDD. Go back through as much of the process video as you can, and snap screenshots to correlate with each step. You can use a markup tool such as Skitch to call out specific actions on the screen.

What happens if you have a process hygiene issue?

Even the most well-oiled organizations are susceptible to “leaky” processes. Often we find that this stems from a lack of documentation surrounding those processes, which can lead to different workflows for each process scattered across the organization, and efficiencies which lead to bottlenecks.

Once you have the initial draft of your PDD put together, bring it to the rest of your team with an open forum for feedback and suggestions. This is an opportunity to check your ego at the door. Invite your team members to openly call out areas where they do things differently, and listen for efficiency opportunities in the reasoning behind those decisions.

Ultimately, the process needs to be completed in the same way by everyone, and this thorough documentation should solve for that. But operational efficiency is an ever-evolving journey, and an open door for feedback makes for happier and more productive team members.

What Is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic process automation, or RPA, is the development and implementation of a custom piece of software that does a manual, digital process for you. It’s not a physical robot, just a brilliantly, custom-configured program that runs through all of the steps of anything that happens on a computer.

There are a couple of parameters for what makes a process a good candidate for automation though:

  1. The process must happen digitally. Our programs can’t walk your dog for you.
  2. The process must be rules-based.

Robotic process automation is used by companies to keep up with demanding, repetitive workflows that human workers don’t need to be doing. This frees those human workers up to do more fulfilling and enjoyable work, and puts a bot on those repetitive processes instead.

The most common setbacks for RPA implementation

For the most part, it can be true that you won’t have to change your internal processes to automate them  – unless those processes have inefficiencies or inconsistencies in them.

Many times, organizations may set their sights on automation, only to find that there is still much work to be done in the way of process hygiene. Maybe someone from another branch does it slightly differently. Maybe training and process documentation is non-existent or not strictly enforced.

Whatever the case may be, it makes us feel to only automate the best for our customers, so that when it comes time to turn their automations on, our clients see an immediate return on that investment.

If you identify inconsistencies in how the process is executed in your organization, it will be important to address those discrepancies ahead of developing an RPA solution. The only time an RPA solution fails is when there is an unaccounted for anomaly in the process. You’ll reduce your time to market, improve your run time for your bots, and get to positive ROI faster with a strong internal process ahead of implementation.

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Published On:

January 9, 2024

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