Automate the Elephant One Bite at a Time

My weekly work routine sees me meeting with businesses in the graphic communications marketplace on a regular basis, and one of the hottest topics for discussion, without fail, is Automation. It’s also something that seems to carry different meaning and different value to almost everyone.

There are many and varied reasons for automation. Some businesses automate in order to reduce costs by removing steps in a process that are repetitive or add little value. Others automate to enable seamless interaction from outside sources to bring large volumes of orders or processes into a system. Others still automate in order to remove points of error entering into a process caused by having different users doing things in different ways. There are many reasons to automate, so understanding your goals and outcomes helps in the planning process.

People take many different approaches to tackling the philosophy of automation, but a common trap I see people falling into, is trying to scope-out something that automates absolutely everything. Almost any task can be automated with the right tools, the right planning and the right amount of work. However, when you start moving towards automating that one job that comes in every February 29th, on a full moon requiring a structural engineer with a knowledge of quantum mechanics to construct the project, you’re probably at the point where you are investing more time and energy into automating than the return is worth.

There’s a myriad of workflow automation tools, so knowing where to start can be a daunting process. From my experience, understanding the scope of what you are trying to achieve, and using this as the yardstick when evaluating is the best approach. Knowing that the tools you choose will integrate and play well with others is also a significant factor, as is the future scope for expanding the capabilities later. Intelligent automation that can make decisions based upon outcomes is also generally a more robust choice than a simple A then B then C style solution.

The returns from automation can be significant. In the modern print shop print runs are getting shorter and turnaround times are getting quicker. In a world where an average job value is $1,000 spending 20 minutes entering data can be absorbed, however when the average job value drops, the time you are spending can and will eat more, if not all, of the profit that goes with a job. Equally in high-volume environments receiving several hundred orders a day, each with a 15-minute overhead of data entry, leads to huge volumes of time that maybe of little real value to the work. Cost of errors in a low average dollar value environment will also very quickly eat into business profitability.

Automation is, and should be, an evolving process. By starting with the highest impact items and then gradually expanding the scope of the automation you can eat the elephant one bite at a time. This method gives you a return on your investment in both time & cost, far sooner. It also turns what may appear like an impossible task into smaller achievable milestones.

– Adrian Fleming

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