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March 18, 2014

Autonomation and Business Process Management

Business processes involve people working together with a variety of inputs to deliver an outcome that serves the customer, and benefits the organisation. Change is constant and the nature of the modern marketplace is such that business processes can quickly become convoluted, confusing and inefficient.

“Autonomation” is a term used in the lean philosophy to mean “automation with a human touch”. Autonomation is about working with the team in the process to understand and streamline the process and, importantly, empowering the team to stop and fix problems when they occur; and then to work together to eliminate the root cause of the problem.

In “The Toyota Way Fieldbook” Jeffrey Liker and David Meier describe the capability “to stop and fix problems as they occur rather than pushing them down the line to be resolved later” as vital to successful and sustained lean improvement.

Business Process Management (BPM) deploys technology to support the management and improvement of business processes. It is important to stress that BPM involves IT working with the process team to facilitate improvement. Process improvements are usually identified by work-based teams collaborating with the BPM technology to create sustainable changes. This is a good example of autonomation in practice.

BPM involves understanding, modelling, improving and controlling business processes with the involvement of the team delivering the process. Thus a BPM software solution might involve a number of elements:

1) A Process Engine – a robust platform for modelling and coordinating the process, including business rules

2) Business Analytics — to provide managers with real-time information to manage the process and identify business issues, trends, and opportunities

3) Content Management — means to securely store and process electronic documents, images, and other files

4) Collaboration Tools — means to improve communication and share learning between teams and departments through discussion forums, dynamic workspaces, and message boards

Autonomation using BPM is a coordinated and collaborative approach which involves management, the people working in a process, and IT specialists to develop and implement a solution that will provide the greatest benefits in terms of efficiency, workflow, risk and compliance, and staff involvement. Other benefits of a BPM approach include:

  • The ability to manage the whole end-to-end process (across teams, departments and locations) to provide the best customer service
  • The ability for the whole team to work together to optimise the whole process
  • The ability to model “what if” scenarios and simulate changes before committing to their implementation
  • Greater management of risk and compliance issues across the whole process with controls in the right places
  • Greater flexibility to react quickly to changes in the process, for example, peaks and troughs in demand, or regulatory changes
  • The sharing of learning, problems and constraints across the process to develop mutually beneficial solutions
  • The ease of documentation of processes for quality assurance purposes
  • The ease of replication of processes as the organisation expands or restructures

Ultimately, BPM is about providing flexible process management tools so that work-teams can be empowered to “stop and fix” problems and improve the process in a coordinated and controlled manner that does not dilute local involvement, teamwork and enthusiasm with the heavy hand of corporate bureaucracy.

By contrast, hard-coding the business process in BPM software without the involvement of the team in continuous improvement is merely “concretising” (horrible word) waste – which is not at all lean.

Autonomation using BPM, therefore, must involve the work team at every stage and, in particular, is using the software as a framework for ongoing improvement.