What are main obstacles to robotization and how to overcome them?

In one of my previous articles I discussed main reasons to go for robotization – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-main-reasons-why-companies-go-robotization-mariusz-pultyn/ . Now I want tackle a more challenging topic – an analysis of main obstacles companies have to overcome to succeed with robotization.

  1. Why should I bother ?

Although robotization can be now regarded as a mainstream tool for enterprise digital transformation it is sometimes difficult to find a reliable source of information on tangible benefits robotization can bring. There are obvious reasons like reduction of the cost of operations, improvement of quality and efficiency and quite many non-obvious that I discussed in more detail in previous post: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-main-reasons-why-companies-go-robotization-mariusz-pultyn/

In short, main reasons that companies should be driven by in making a decision about robotization are:

  1. It is difficult for a company to automate to the required extent with IT, and not all automation is economically justified that way
  2. Company is looking for quick wins against labor market challenges (attrition, rising wages, training, etc.)
  3. A will to release employees from the most tedious and repetitive tasks
  4. Increase in efficiency
  5. Improvement of quality
  6. Taking a first step to try and experiment with AI

I’m sure that reading that post will answer the question of why should you bother with robotization. If you are not fully convinced – please let me know in comments of address me directly.

  1. Lack of knowledge of assessment of robotic potential

The general rule of thumb says 20-30% of all office work is in range of robotic technology, but actual potential can be much more than that depending on your specific application environment. There is very short questionnaire that can help you identify processes that are best for robotization:

  • Process is highly standardized, documented and stable
  • Input data are digitized
  • Process requires significant amount of repetitive manual labor
  • Automated system is relatively stable in terms of adding new functionalities and in near future there are no significant architectural changes planned
  • Automated process is human error prone (requires large amount of data input, especially sensitive like amounts, dates or clients’ IDs)
  • Automated process covers few IT systems what requires an employee to be able to multitask and frequently switch between the applications
  • Automated process has significant volume fluctuations what makes adequate staffing challenging for Customer

If your processes share at least some of those characteristics they are most probably good for robots.

After such brief assessment you can go two ways mostly depending on your organization culture – either find some advisory help to analyze in detail all your potential upfront or start small with first process and robotize it and then build your experience in agile and iterative process of continuous improvement.

  1. Lack of robotic skills

Here you also have couple of choices. The most obvious one is that you may decide you don’t need robotic skills at all and let somebody else do the robotization for you, ideally providing robots-as-a-service. This is the best choice when robots are not your core business or your scale of operations does not exceed hundreds of employees. On the opposite you can try to establish Center of Robotic Excellence yourself by acquiring talents on the market or by asking for some consulting on how to establish and grow such competencies.

  1. Fear of implementing “temporary” solution that stays forever

Because robots work without changing of underlying IT systems and somehow cover inefficiencies of current user interfaces can be perceived as “temporary” solution until “real automation” is being introduced. The truth is that robots are fully fledged automation solution that in most cases has no alternative. This is because usually there are valid reasons that automated low-level interfaces haven’t been built or systems haven’t been changed due to sometimes prohibitive cost. On the other hand robots by their nature are extremely lightweight and can be a great bridging solution until those “ultimate” solution are being delivered.

  1. Potential collision with other digital transformation projects

As said above robots are now a part of the mainstream digital transformation tools and should be used as complimentary solution to other automation efforts. The best way to avoid potential collision is to simply put robots on your transformation roadmap after properly assessing their advantages over other activities. Big transformation projects usually take some time to implement, so robots are ideal bridging solution as I mentioned in previous paragraph. Robots are also perfect to fill some gaps in ergonomics of newly implemented solutions, especially when some difficult decisions on scope had to be made right before deployment of big new transformational project. Robots can give you some time to think about target employee experience when interacting with newly built systems.

  1. Substantial upfront investment

Even if robotic infrastructure is usually much less costly than typical IT solutions it still requires some servers, either on-premise or in cloud, some robotic licenses and above all skilled team to keep thing running smoothly.

There are some ways to overcome this issue – one has been briefly discussed above – you can simply find a provider of robotic services and pay only for the work robots will do for you. Then your upfront investment is close to zero.

You can also invest a little more and go for trial or free versions of robotic platforms with lightweight infrastructure in the cloud good enough to conduct Proof of Concept of robotic process automation and then try to scale it up. This approach is quite popular, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as results of small scale implementations can be very misleading when complexity increases.

Again there is a third way to tackle the problem – especially when your organization has a culture of creating more formal business cases for potential projects. In most cases properly assessed costs are greatly exceeded by the benefits of robotization, so upfront investment pays off in relatively short period of time.

  1. Difficulties of change management

One of the most important issues to be addressed before robots are introduced is what to do with employees’ time released by robots. This problem is less pressing nowadays as there is usually much more work to be done in mostly growing companies than employees able to process additional volumes. If that is a case you simply have to reallocate work giving people more interesting, creative and value adding work. When robotization is done in agile way the change is gradual and continuous, so people have enough time to adapt and usually come back with more ideas of what more robots can do.

If your robotization project is going to be implemented in more big-bang way or you are mostly motivated by reduction of your staff you might need to plan employee relocation as one of components of digital transformation of your organization. There is a plenty of advisory help you can find to help you deal with change management, however I would strongly recommend to go for gradual and iterative approach with robotic implementations, because it better aligns with robots’ lightweight nature.

  1. Fear of defeat

All new activities bear some risk of failure, but it is just stating the obvious. Why I’m convinced this risk is much lower with properly introduced robotic process automation ?

The most important reason is something I mentioned before – robots by their nature are aligned with agile paradigm. This means they can be implemented in much shorter times and with much less cost and much less stakeholders involved than typical automation activities. This helps to achieve positive feedback loop which provides that small robotization success leads to another small robotization success and eventually becomes great transformational success of all organization.

If you are dealing with other issues that hinder starting your robotization journey, please do not hesitate to share those. I’m sure we’ll find the way to overcome them. Robots are really your employees best friends !

Mariusz Pultyn
CTO

How robots can be a win-win in a typical company?

In all companies known to us one thing is taken for granted: IT resources are scarce and choices made in terms of what will be developed by technical team and what needs to wait for ‘unknown future’ are always difficult. Moreover, IT development is generally expensive what leads to very careful decision making with heavy emphasis on business case the investment is to generate.

IT resources are always limited. That means that choices regarding investment in technical development within companies are difficult. They result in many advances being left for improvement for ‘unknown future’. Also, IT solutions tend to be relatively expensive in implementing, hence natural direction is to invest in IT in areas which will result in creating new business and impact the financial results of a company more directly.

The above leads to a simple generalization, that usually IT resources are more likely to be placed into front-end, business development areas that are to have a larger impact on top rather than bottom line. Moreover, introducing new technologies, new channels, new business lines and new products very often leads to an increase in complexity in back-office. In ideal world this complexity should be hidden from our eyes and solved by automated interfaces and applications. As most of us know, in reality it is not always the case and very often more technology closer to front-end is associated with increase in manual work to be done in the back-office.

Hence having robots as automation mean in back-office allows for more allocation of more IT development resources towards areas with more sophisticated technology and potentially higher business growth impact.

Mariusz Pultyn
CTO

Robot manufacturing process automation

Is it possible to deal with large-scale robotization (more than a few robots) without automating the processes of creating, installing and monitoring robots?

We believe it isn’t. Robots used in RPA is a piece of software which sometimes needs to be changed. They work on applications which may also change from time to time what can cause even more complications. When starting robotization journey you should be always prepared for both of these factors and have tools to manage them in easy and safe way.

At the same time, we want the development of robots to be a simple and pleasant work, rather than a constant fight with the removal of errors. That is why in Digital Teammates we have prepared several tools and standards, that let us combine ease of working on robots (and thus shortening Time-To-Market) while maintaining a high level of quality and low vulnerability to errors.

Some of the main elements included in our solution for robot manufacturing process automation:

  • Standarization of the robot development process

Robots coming out of our factory are always characterized by certain common features regardless of which systems and in which environments they work on. This set of rules applies to both the manufacturing process (based on the best programming practices) and the construction itself (a set of rules that must be obeyed by all newly created robots). 

  • Creation of robots’ working environments

A very important factor, that can easily reduce the risk of possible errors is the standardization of robots’ working environments and the automatization of the process of preparing robots’ workstations. Thanks to this approach and dedicated tools, we are able to build virtual “robots’ desks” quickly significantly shortening Time-To-Market for our Clients.

  • Automatic tests, robots installation and configuration process

Our robots are tested automatically, and more specifically, are tested by other robots whose only purpose is to detect errors as soon as possible on test environments.

Fast and efficient installation of new robots also requires automation. Our robots use an integrated configuration management system, which helps minimizing risk of errors and  allows changes in start-up parameters without the need of installing new versions of robots.

  • Robots monitoring

All operations performed by robots are logged (on several levels) and stored in a dedicated log repository. The structure of these logs allows us to generate reports of both technical and business nature. Our clients have access to this data online and are able to monitor how do their virtual employees perform.

More details about mentioned tools and standards in my upcoming blog articles.

Bartosz Pietras
Head of IT

Hand in hand with robots – how people react to digital teammates?

As you can easily imagine, the decision to introduce robots that perform tasks handled by people can be a controversial topic for human employees. Our experience shows that even mere delivery of such news can stir the emotions and open up argumentative discussions. Both surprise and fear of the change itself and a potential loss of daily tasks can turn out to be a daunting blocker if not addressed in time.

Making employees accustomed to the subject and transparently presenting them what the planned changes are associated with is always a good start. Let’s not be afraid to say that robots will actually do some of our people’s work, but at the same time, we must not forget to emphasize that robots will handle the least liked tasks. Clear explanation of the fact that in the present reality we have much more work than resources to handle it is also a good argument because it’s our employees’ everyday reality and they can relate to.

A good introduction is one thing, but the best results in convincing people to robots stems from employees’ involvement in the very process of their development and the fastest possible launch of robots. These are the characteristics on which the Rent-a-Robot model offered by Digital Teammates is based. The most crucial here is the immediate transition from theory to practice what allows to convince our employees that robots are their allies, not their enemies. By handling the most repetitive and tedious tasks, they allow people to focus on a more creative side of their work and strongly emphasize the expert status of our human crew. Supervising the tasks carried out by the robot and at the same time necessity to handle most unique, complicated and complex cases by humans allows for the continuous progress of their specialist knowledge.

Reluctance related to employees’ anxiety of unknown and new technology is also easy to overcome by showing people that they are necessary for proper processing of tasks by the robots. The technological aspect and familiarizing people with the way that RPA works have an additional value, worth emphasizing in the conversation with our teams. Considering the dynamic growth of popularity of robotic solutions coupled with their relative novelty, first-hand experience gained by working side by side with robots, will be exceptional and almost exclusive for our employees. This is another aspect worth emphasizing.

In practice the introduction of robots can work wonders, especially in case of sudden spikes of volumes. Our employees noticed quickly that thanks to having digital teammates on board they are no longer asked to do overtime to handle additional volumes. The robots will take care of them gladly and without complaints and thanks to that our crew will be well-rested and much more effective.

Based on our experience, it can be noticed that despite the initial fears, anxiety of the unknown, and even resentment and controversy, robots can win the sympathy and favor of the employees. The combination of theory, elements of education and taming, and finally the launch of the first robots are enough for our teams to become convinced to RPA and to open them to accept the benefits of this solution.

To sum up the topic, I will quote the situation which happened few weeks ago – passing one of the employees in our office, instead of the usual “Hi!”, I’ve heard: “Magda, these robots are not so bad, after all. When will we get the next one? ” It seems that this short yet pithy point speaks for itself.

Magdalena Adamczewska
Head of Operations

How future workspace will change ?

Organizations we know and have seen are facing a challenge of having to few people for the amount of work they have to do. People available for work in back-office operations are scarce so it is a challenge to maintain the right team to keep the operations up and running. On top of this, many tasks that people are doing should have been automated long ago Their repetitive, tedious and error prone character means that these tasks should not be done by people any more and are perfect for robots.

We usually see that a typical team of 10 people has 7 more experienced and advanced specialists and 3 more junior members who are much more prone to attrition. This naturally leads to a situation where it is tempting to allocate the more tedious and repetitive tasks to the less experienced workers, what fuels the attrition even more.

Hence, having robots on board generally raises motivation as the most undesired jobs can be done by them and people, having Digital Teammates working shoulder by shoulder, can eventually focus on more creative and developing tasks what eventually leads to much more attractive workplace.

As we generally observe that typical robotization potential is ranging from 20% to 30% of processes, we can safely say that robots are perfectly fit to fill in the positions which are associated with highest rotation and the whole workplace immediately becomes way more attractive for the whole team, including the newcomers.

Konrad Jakubiec
Board Member

Do robots have cognitive skills?

Most of our robots strictly follow the procedure that is programmed up-front. This procedure sometimes can by very complex, because of the nature of the underlying business process. This allows the robot to work with 100% accuracy at all times. Robots can always explain why they made specific decisions and why they chose specific path based on specific situation. This makes them absolutely deterministic and perfectly fit for operations where the result has to be exactly, as provided by the procedure.

However in some situations we can benefit from artificial intelligence, especially when robots make some preliminary work, searching through big databases to prepare some data for further processing by humans. The examples of such activity from our experience can be reading incoming emails and flagging them with different categories. Even if the process is not 100% accurate it can save a lot of human work with reading all communication.

Mariusz Pultyn
CTO

Which processes are a perfect fit for robotization?

Robot works best while doing tedious, boring, repetitive tasks, requiring a lot of care for details and error-prone for humans. Processes that have characteristics described below are perfect fit for robotization. However, in real life they rarely satisfy all of them. Most processes must have at least some of those to be good candidates for robotization:

  • Process is highly standardized, documented and stable
  • Input data are digitized
  • Process requires significant amount of repetitive manual labor
  • Automated system is relatively stable in terms of adding new functionalities and in near future there are no significant architectural changes planned
  • Automated process is human error prone (requires large amount of data input, especially sensitive like amounts, dates or clients’ IDs)
  • Automated process covers few IT systems what requires an employee to be able to multitask and frequently switch between the applications
  • Automated process has significant volume fluctuations what makes adequate staffing challenging for Customer

Usually the tasks which could be described with the characteristics above are the least attractive for human employees. We can state here that a very general rule of thumb that robot can do things which people simply don’t like doing.

Konrad Jakubiec
Board Member

What are main reasons why companies go for robotization?

If you are at a stage of considering whether RPA is the right answer to your challenges it is worth to examine why others opted to choose this way. Robotization with RPA is a powerful tool in enhancing your company operations and in taking a digitalization leap forward. However, like any tool, it is essential to identify the most adequate issues it can fix.

So, what are the reasons why companies go for robotization?

1. They find it difficult to automate to the required extent with IT, and not all automation is economically justified that way

In all companies known to us one thing is taken for granted: IT resources are scarce and choices made in terms of what will be developed by technical team and what needs to wait for ‘unknown future’ are always difficult. Moreover, IT development is generally expensive what leads to very careful decision making with heavy emphasis on business case the investment is to generate.

The above leads to a simple generalization, that usually IT resources are more likely to be placed into front-end, business development areas that are to have a larger impact on top rather than bottom line. Moreover, introducing new technologies, new channels, new business lines and new products very often leads to increase in complexity in back-office. In ideal world this complexity should be hidden from our eyes and solved by automated interfaces and applications. As most of us know, in reality it is not always the case and very often more technology closer to front-end is associated with increase in manual work to be done in the back-office.

Having the above in mind, RPA fits just perfectly in such world. It is much more economically justified, has much simpler development process and yields benefits faster than typical IT development. Also RPA is usually less challenging technologically (though in terms of processing complexity RPA often is quite a task to face), hence specialists in advanced IT technologies are often simply not adequate for the automation needed in back-office operation. That is why RPA is very often the right answer to challenges that back-office operations are facing in the area of automation and technological advancement.

2. Are looking for quick wins against labor market challenges (attrition, rising wages, training, etc.)

Many geographies experience shortage in talent and candidates to work. This leads to a situation where people are comfortable to change jobs. Our experience shows, that back-office operations have this typical feature that very often the team consists of relatively stable core of a team that is more specialized and more suitable for more advanced tasks. The other part of a team is usually experiencing higher rotation, where usually younger employees are very often allocated to those less challenging and more tedious tasks. As such set-up should be managed and teams should have sufficient competence blending to maintain high motivation across the team, it is not always achieved. In such situation the attrition is maintained at high levels what leads to higher recruitment and training costs. 

The important feature is that tasks which are typically less favored by workers due to the repetitive, tedious and error prone character are the most suitable for robots. Hence, having robots on board can significantly reduce attrition as people can focus on more challenging and creative tasks having Digital Teammates on board. Also robots are easier to train, don’t leave job and don’t ask for a raise, so they increase stability in back-office operations management.

3. Are willing to release employees from the most tedious and repetitive tasks

Our experience shows that most places the challenge is that organizations have too much work when compared with people available to them. This in itself is a challenge to maintain the right team that can do the heavy lifting in back-office operations. We can add here, that unfortunately still in many places people are doing tasks which should have been automated long ago. We mean repetitive, tedious ad error prone processes. The coincidence is that such activities are just perfect for robots.

Hence, having robots on board generally raises motivation as the most unwanted jobs can be done by them and people, having Digital Teammates working shoulder by shoulder, can eventually focus on more creative and developing tasks what eventually leads to much more attractive workplace.

4. Are looking for more efficiency

Robots are faster than humans. It depends on type of application and nature of process by how much. Our experience shows that on average robot works around 4 times faster than a human, up to 50 times faster on some of the oldest terminal applications.

5. Are looking for improvement in quality

Robots trained and developed well do not make mistakes. They always follow the procedures and never make a typo or miscalculation or any other mistake which can be more likely the more repetitive and tedious the task is. Robots are the simplest and fastest way to improve the quality of your operations.

6. Are taking first step to try and experiment with AI

AI is always an interesting step to take when technological advancement in operations is considered. Having algorithms that can do the work but do not need to be deterministically designed in 100% of cases prior the deployment is attractive for many processes.

Though AI elements in robotization differ significantly from pure RPA. Pure RPA is 100% deterministic. The input is 100% strictly specified, procedures are close-end and fully known and output is always predictable and can be tracked back if needed.

AI is never error free, as one of its features is that it is learning with time and increases its efficiency over time. This on its own means, that RPA processes are easy to design as robots can be simply placed within a process and we know exactly how many cases with what result will be done by robots. AI does require a human supervision or second hand checks what leads to a need of process redesign to make sure that whatever AI is doing eventually does not have unexpectedly negative impact.

This is the reason why we believe that robots with AI are more challenging for successful deployment, hence it is advised to start with simpler RPA robots first. This is particularly important from psychological point of view as well designed RPA robots yield positive results from day one after the deployment. In cases where AI needs some time to learn how to do its job, the team needs to maintain certain level of patience and understating for the new technology working side by side.

Teams that already experienced how pure RPA robots can help in their daily job are better prepared to welcome additions of AI to the team.

Mariusz Pultyn
CTO

What do I have to do to start robotization?

We are strongly supporting an idea that robotization should be done in a way that shows first benefits very quickly and does not require much upfront investments – both in terms of money and time. That is why n order to start we just have to find first process that fits for robotization and understand its logic. Once we know what process it is and what application it uses all we need is accounts for robot for them and we can start the actual development.

The important feature of Digital Teammates and its Robo Shepherd team is that we do not require detailed mapping of processes, documentation or any other sophisticated preparation. Finding robotization is as simple as just showing our Robo Shepherds what people are doing. Usually a workshop which is few hours long is enough to have a very good start. We are even able to develop a fully functional robot based on a video recording.

We prefer project discover phase to be kept as short as possible as we want to have first deployed robots early and it is more natural for us and our Clients to search for other processes for robots once robots and their logic is familiar.

Once the first processes are identified, our Robo Shepherds develop the first robots. This process usually takes few weeks, 3-6. After this period robots are deployed and start doing their job.

Bartosz Pietras
Head of IT

What benefits does the robotization bring?

RPA has in recent time earned itself a title of a ‘super-hyped tool’. The reason why so much buzz is being generated around the RPA is how versatile and ‘to-the-point’ the technology is. We may be experiencing a revolution which results in disrupting a paradigm in which any automation in office operations is entirely under full IT teams responsibility. The power of RPA is that it hands some of the automation capability to business owners of processes. Considering that thanks to RPA automation can be easily applied usually to the most painful and unwanted by people tasks, the hype around the dawn of robots working along people in our offices is fully justified.

The difference between a tool and a syper-hyped tool is that the latter may sometimes be used everywhere, without giving a second thought to the purpose the tool was designed for. In order to make sure that robotization with RPA is perceived and used for the right tasks we are willing to share a list of reasons why to consider reaching for the technology. All in all, using the right tools to the right tasks is always a mandatory step to achieve success. And knowing what benefits a tool can bring is even more important to set the right expectations.

Robotization with RPA brings certain benefits which need to be identified well. RPA does not answer all of challenges that back-office operations face now, yet it allows for certain advancements that can yield great results. If done well robotization brings following important benefits:
• Robots perform tasks that people usually don’t want to do – tedious, repetitive and error-prone, what allows humans to focus on more creative part of their job.
• A robot works faster and is more accurate than human and never makes mistakes.
• A robot is much cheaper than cost of salary of a human doing the same tasks.
• A robot never quits job. In addition Digital Teammates® takes full care of its maintenance, reconfiguring it as needed. This allows you to save recruitment and training cost of your employees.
• A robot easily handles sudden spikes in volumes of work. In such cases multiple copies of the robots can be made available to work on demand.
• A robot doesn’t require desk, computer, proper office space and ergonomic chair, which mitigates challenges you face while trying to manage office space

Robots may not be an answer to all challenges associated with back-office operations, yet the benefits of having them on board are tangible and achievable in short time. Robots as Digital Teammates not only release a burden of doing the least interesting tasks but also they are a perfect solution to rising or irregular volumes of work.

Coming back to the notion that RPA allows for automating some of tasks without IT input – you need to treat this promise with reserve. RPA sure does powerful automation in a lot simpler way than could be imagined few years ago, yet it still is a piece of software and as any it does require basic engineering and development approach incorporate to make sure it works. Especially when larger scale of robots is deployed – even if developing every single one was doable without IT skills, managing, monitoring and maintaining them is not as is easy as when you had just two simple robots on board.

Magdalena Adamczewska
Head of Operations