How to apply lean thinking principles to improve business process automation

Process automation is a hot topic in the business world, with companies all over the world rushing to adopt technologies that will make them more agile. Unfortunately, deploying the right automation system, in the right way, isn’t always easy.

Enter lean thinking.

Lean thinking is a business principle all about maximising value and efficiency. And by filtering your automation quest through lean thinking, you can improve your odds of implementing the solution(s) best for you.

First, what is “lean thinking”?

Lean thinking refers to a business attitude that runs deeply enough to be called a strategy. At its best, lean thinking refers to prioritising value ⁠— both at the level of the customer and the employee. You can achieve this by managing several important benchmarks.

·       Value

Value is the principle from which all other aspects of lean thinking flow. It’s the goal that drives every eventual decision. In business terms, value is simply what customers are willing to pay for. In practical terms, this means tailoring your product or service to give customers precisely what they want. This can be accomplished through data processing and implementation.

Lean thinking also considers value in terms of what is meaningful to the company and its employees.

·       Cut waste

In business, the act of “cutting waste” often has a negative connotation. (Historically, cutting waste has meant layoffs.)

But lean thinking isn’t about paring your staff down to a skeleton crew. It’s about maximising the efficiency of your operations.

Are you having regular meetings that could be summarised in an email? Cut them. Are your workdays longer than they need to be? Reconsider your scheduling.

With lean thinking, efficient decisions are supposed to benefit the customer, the company, and the employees.

·       Refine

The refinement phase of lean thinking, sometimes referred to as “flow”, happens as companies work to restructure their processes in the way most conducive to maximising value. For this phase to be effective, it usually needs to be implemented from the top down.

·       Limit materials

Once a business’s processes have been refined, it’s time to take a look at physical waste. Poor inventory management can result in warehouses full of unused, unnecessary items that slow efficiency. Plus, they cost money to store and maintain. By eliminating waste, then, you leave your company more agile.

·       Constant improvement

Stagnation is not a part of the lean thinking principle. To move in the right direction, you always need to work on process improvement. It’s an ongoing journey.

Keep in mind that “improving” in this case is a term cast through the filter of lean thinking. Improvements could be decisions that reduce waste, improve the employee experience, or provide more value to the customer.

Lean thinking and automation

Like lean thinking, an automation deployment should improve efficiency across an organisation.

The two feed usefully into each other. So, how can you apply lean thinking to your automation process?

·       Does the automation add value?

First, ask how new technology will add value to the customer experience. Perhaps you are improving customer service by automating certain aspects of communication. Perhaps you are reducing waste in a way that will allow you to reduce prices.

These are good examples of ways that automation can serve as a direct value proposition for your customers.

·       Expedite processes

If there is one thing automation is known for, it’s getting things done easier. As you filter your automation decisions through the lean thinking perspective, look for clear ways that the technology will make things quicker.

For example, some programs automate invoicing, or customer onboarding. These are processes that would otherwise take a significant amount of time and money. Conversely, if you can’t connect an automation technology with a direct efficiency benchmark, it may not be worthwhile.

·       Inventory management

Automation is naturally adapted for inventory management. Many automation programs can track what you have on hand, and even take care of the ordering to make sure that you never run out of supplies. Plus, they help make sure that you don’t stock more than you need.

·       Constant improvement

And of course, the big one: is automation improving your company or just making it different? Technological adoption efforts are often snared by this complicated trap. Make sure you deploy your automation system with clear goals in mind, and measure the results.

Lean thinking and automation

Tech for tech’s sake usually does more harm than good. So, look for automation technology that improves your processes and boosts efficiency. Ignore technology that doesn’t.

Author bio

Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of Fortune 500 companies within a wide range of industries including information technology, healthcare, and AI. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers began working with start-up companies and aspiring entrepreneurs in the technology and healthcare space.