We know this: if you don’t provide the best customer experience, your customers go elsewhere. One way to get them to stick around: speed up the time it takes to complete core operational processes by automating areas with high-cycle time, low-value-add or manual decision points.
You’ve taken the right first step towards achieving this if you modeled the processes. When I ask clients for their as-is process models, more often than not they say one of the following:
- "Oh, we never created one of those.”
- "We have them, but they’re outdated.”
- "We have one. Let me get it.” (This is my favorite, especially when they find at least three versions!)
Your as-is process model is as important as the red "You are here" dot on a map. Spend sufficient time on these models to understand current problems and to ensure you don’t miss process improvement opportunities.
Once you have your as-is process model, you’re ready to create a to-be model (Figure 1) by identifying desired improvements and optimizations through process analysis.
Figure 1. To-be process being analyzed for cycle time in gray against problems in red
After you know where you are and where you want to go, the next step is to make those models work for you by automating them to reduce cycle time, improve customer experience and free your team for higher value work.
Eight tips to apply business automation to your process models
Note: These tips are especially useful for business analysts and process improvement leaders. Along the way, we refer to several IBM business automation tools for practitioners who want to get started right away or just try something.
Tip 1: Execute your process
First take an inventory of your process models and consider the cost and value of business automation through execution. For example, how much would your knowledge workers and customers benefit from integrated data retrieval, automated routing, real-time visibility, audit trails and other process automations?
Once you decide the right process to execute based on the anticipated business value, there are processing mapping tools, like IBM Blueworks Live, that can help you prepare your model for execution even if you didn’t model it with execution in mind.
Watch this demo on low-code process modeling and execution to see this in action.
Now that you’re executing your process, the next seven tips focus on using intelligent automation services to gain even more value — to further reduce cycle time, improve customer experience and free your team for higher value work.
Tip 2: Replace process branches and gateways with knowledge worker-managed decision services
As you analyze your processes, look for the following characteristics in branches and gateways, such as those shown in Figure 2 below: high frequency, significant volumes of data required, flexibility of change benefits, or regulatory and business audit requirements.
The business rules most likely present in these circumstances — either documented or in people’s heads — are good candidates to manage externally. By managing them outside the process, you enforce consistent business policy while empowering your business teams to easily simulate and update rules. In a faster moving world, the reduction in cycle time through decision automation directly improves customer experience and retention.
Figure 2. Process branches and gateways may represent reusable decisions
Log in to IBM Blueworks Live, and try the following steps:
1. Locate a process similar to Figure 2 above (or create your own three-activity process).
2. Right click the Determine Employee Access task and select Type -> Decision Task.
3. Click, drag and drop the Determine Employee Access task to the BPM System swim lane. You should have a process similar to the one in Figure 3 below.
Figure 3. Decision task moved to the BPM System swim lane for automation
4. Double click the Determine Employee Access task, select the new Decision tab and create a new decision.
5. In the resulting decision diagram, double click the name of your decision and see the new details you can add plus the Decision tab where you can create your own rule tables.
6. Go back to your original process diagram — notice that the linkage to your new decision is retained for traceability and reusability.
Tip 3: Remove data entry errors with intelligent content extraction and robotic automation
Time-intensive data entry and document look-up tasks as shown in Figure 4 can be automated with a combination of intelligent content extraction and robotic process automation to significantly reduce human error and to save time.
Figure 4. Process analysis makes it simple to find high-cycle times and data entry problems
Digital and scanned documents can be sent to a content analysis tool and automatically classified as a specific document type. Then, relevant data is extracted in a structured form to be used by downstream processes. If the original task also includes user interfaces that are difficult to automate with APIs (for example, data entry) or aren’t accessible behind secure interfaces, a robot can help automate the remaining entry with no change to the existing user interfaces.
Tip 4: Replace “string of pearls” patterns with APIs
When you see a series of user or system tasks in the same swim lane (a “string of pearls”) as shown in Figure 5, it may be an opportunity to combine and use APIs so you can remove repetitive tasks and significantly speed up process cycle time.
Figure 5. String of pearls process pattern leads to a good place for API integration
Log in to Blueworks Live, and try the following steps:
1. Locate a process similar to Figure 5 above (or create your own string of pearls process).
2. Press Ctrl (Command for Mac OS) and click to select the three activities in a row (you can also Shift select them by clicking the first and last).
3. Right click on one of the three and select Convert to Subprocess.
The result is a subprocess activity (that can be collapsed and expanded), which contains the original three activities. Figure 6 contains an example.
Figure 6. Three activities converted to a subprocess
To move forward, consider APIs that may already exist or search your organization’s API development portal. If no API is available, look into creating a new API using a tool like IBM Cloud Pak for Integration or continue reading this article for more options.
Tip 5: Use robots for nonvalue-added tasks with high-cycle time and legacy systems
During process analysis, when you see high-cycle times combined with no Value Add to the customer (as shown in Figure 7), it’s a good indication your knowledge workers may be spending time on tasks that don't merit their attention. You can also trace where your process uses systems that can’t be upgraded or reached with an API.
For those tasks that focus on user interaction, you can offer your knowledge workers a robotic assistant to help them with repetitive work. They can even control when the assistant will run and on which tasks.
Figure 7. Process analysis can tell you at a glance when cycle time is high and a task is not adding value
Tip 6: Infuse AI into value-added tasks with large volumes of data
Artificial intelligence (AI) provides the most benefit in value-added process tasks that improve customer experience and require access to large volumes of data (for example, recommendations and situation detection). Think about having to answer a customer question without having time to do the research in order to make the best recommendation. High-cycle times can indicate that knowledge workers are spending a long time finding and combing data to determine the next-best action for their customer (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Process analysis can tell you at a glance when a task adds value to your customer
Recommendation: Put AI to work indexing your organization’s structured and unstructured data sources, such as document repositories and file systems. Then add an AI service, such as IBM Watson Discovery, to your process to help knowledge workers retrieve and easily visualize the information they need.
Tip 7: Launch your processes with virtual assistants
How do you launch your enterprise processes? Do you click in a portal or send an automated event, message or API call? You can directly drive work to the right process and team — seamlessly passing context and delivering improved customer experience — by integrating your processes with virtual assistants, such as chatbots.
Most virtual assistant projects start standalone with small connections to data sources for Q&A patterns such as FAQs.
See a chatbot in action using IBM Watson Assistant:
1. Go to the IBM Watson Assistant page and click the Get Started button.
2. Sign up for a free IBM Cloud™ account as required.
3. Once you log in, you can create your first assistant.
4. If you would like a step-by-step tutorial, try this.
As assistants become more intelligent, they move from conversational to actionable. They use cloud functions and APIs to improve integration from front-end chatbot to back-end operational processes. Consider which processes would benefit from a conversational interface to gather required information and automatically launch. The resulting pattern would look like Figure 9 below with multiple start options for added flexibility.
Figure 9. Multiple process start types provide flexibility and allow the virtual assistant direct access
Tip 8: Combine rules with machine learning for the best recommendations
Do your decision tasks — identified in the second tip — require more data types than you can process with rules alone? Do you want to use the predictive scoring models from your data science team in your operational processes?
Begin with a unified decision model that uses input from traditional structured sources (like a customer or an account) and new machine-learning-based predictions (such as likelihood to accept product or risk score). Ensure the business team is involved in the initial decision modeling and business rule design to maximize reusability of the decision services.
Remember these decisions can be adjusted using both business rule policy updates and predictive model parameters. Also, advanced patterns such as rule-driven predictive model selection allow your team’s decision models to prescribe the next-best action for your business.
Watch this demo to see an example of infusing business rules with machine learning.
Pulling it all together
If you need to reduce cycle time, improve customer experience and free your team for higher value work, it all starts with a solid process model. After that, analyze the model to identify opportunities and apply business automation using the eight tips above. Don’t forget to look for advanced combinations that can amplify business value, such as decisions and machine learning or intelligent content extraction and robotic automation.
Figure 10 models the tips outlined in this article using Blueworks Live. You can use this to follow the path from process modeling to business automation.
Figure 10. Path from process modeling to business automation
Finally, if you’re not sure which process to start with, consider a free one-day automation workshop. Or if you’re ready to scope your MVP, get started with a four-day Garage session.