Driving process automation to new heights with process mining

While process automation allows organisations to simultaneously achieve quality, efficiency and compliance goals, it must be continually monitored to ensure it does not entrench processes that work against the attainment of these goals.

That’s the view of Rajeev Mishra, Enterprise Architect & Process Automation Lead at Ovations Group, who warns that automation is a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand, manual processes must be continuously balanced to deliver the organisation’s desired levels of quality, efficiency and compliance. Process automation makes this far easier to achieve. However, when not applied over a solid business process management foundation, automation can backfire and lead to additional overhead for workers and lack of flexibility,” he says.

On its own, automation does not create efficiency, quality or compliance – it merely enhances these properties. As Bill Gates once famously said: “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

“When automating a process, it is therefore vitally important to do so as part of a comprehensive business process management approach that includes a sound approach to process analysis, redesign and monitoring,” Mishra says, adding that the main challenge when adopting process automation is not the technology itself.

Rather, the main challenge is to embed this technology within a continuous process management discipline and culture.

Another challenge with process automation is that fact that, as pointed out by modern business process management pioneer Michael Hammer, “every good process eventually becomes a bad process” when left by itself.

Because of this, business processes have to be constantly adapted to customer needs and expectations as well as technology, market and competition changes.

This is where the relatively new discipline of process mining comes to the fore.

In its publication, “Process Mining 101” Apromore, an Australian provider of open source solutions for process mining, defines process mining as “a family of techniques to analyse the performance and conformance of business processes based on data produced during their execution”.

According to Mishra, process mining is not entirely new to South Africa, but as far as can be ascertained, it has only been deployed in a handful of applications.

This is hardly surprising given that the adoption of business process management and automation has been rather uneven, with very different levels of maturity across larger and smaller companies. Although many larger companies have a maturity level on par with their counterparts in Europe and the US, smaller companies generally lag behind.

Mishra attributes this to a misperception among SMEs that automation requires large investments and long timeframes to implement.

“While this may have been true 15 to 20 years ago, the automation technology landscape has evolved significantly, particularly since the rise of cloud-based solutions. Today, business process automation and monitoring technology are accessible to companies of all sizes,” he says.

However, he believes that process automation alone may not produce the benefits companies expect.

“Process automation without process mining is like a car with a powerful engine but with a poor steering system. Automation allows you to push the accelerator hard, but it does not allow you to drive the business in the right direction,” he says.

According to Mishra, process mining:

  • Allows us to pare the performance of a process down to the level of individual tasks, resources and handoffs. If your process is slow, process mining allows you to see exactly why it is slow – where you are spending time. If your process is too costly or too labour-intensive, process mining allows you to trace the processing costs down to individual steps.
  • Allows us to see how the process is actually executed. This is important because the main reason why a process is inefficient or inconsistent is often because it is not executed the way it was designed to be executed. Process mining allows us to find the gaps between how the process should be executed and how it is actually executed.
  • Enhances compliance. It allows us to pinpoint deviations with respect to policies and regulations and to understand the root causes of these deviations.
  • Allows us to make the process more reactive and agile. In particular, predictive monitoring, which is one of the capabilities of process mining, allows us to pinpoint cases that are likely to violate our service-level objectives, giving managers time ahead to adjust and to optimise their processes.
  • Allows us to find under-performing and over-performing parts of the organisation, and to understand why some teams perform better or less well than others. This allows teams in the organisation to learn from each other.

“Effectively, process mining shows us where and how to fix the weak parts of a process and enhance the good ones by allowing us to exploit the digital traces left by process automation tools, and to turn them into insights regarding what is going well and what is going wrong with our processes,” Mishra says.

“What this boils down to is that if businesses want to get the most from their process automation investments, they need to balance their investment between process automation technology and process monitoring and mining technology.

“At the same time, they need to avoid focusing only on their technology and tools, and adopt a process-first approach as this will provide the framework that allows them to identify, assess and prioritise automation opportunities that support their digital transformation efforts and gain a competitive advantage,” Mishra concludes.

Rajeev Mishra – Enterprise Architect & Process Automation Lead
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