The beauty of Xero is that the cloud platform introduced Kiwi business owners to the power of automation – remember those spreadsheets, the long hours and the need for painstaking detail?
Now there are hundreds of different apps offering to make all kinds of things easier – but don’t make the mistake of confusing functionality with automation.
“Automation may be a good thing, but don’t forget that it began with Frankenstein.” – Anonymous.
Most people in business will be aware that hundreds of apps offering all kinds of stunning outcomes can quickly turn into a devouring monster. Overwhelmed by functionality, the need to learn new systems and time spent setting up, we can soon become disillusioned with automation.
Bill Gates said automation applied to an inefficient operation would magnify the inefficiency. It’s a timely point in that automation is not another word for process – business processes, a necessary tool of efficiency and economies of scale, are separate and distinct from automation.
When looking to automate, consider these steps.
1. What are your goals?
Why do you want to automate? You might want to scale, which means you need to free up time to focus on sales and marketing, or your goal may be to reduce costs or increase the speed of output.
It’s not unheard of to find businesses that employ staff, whether for a couple of days a week or a few hours, to complete tasks like managing the payroll, but how will automating a task contribute to the business’s overall goals? Ridding yourself of unnecessary tasks and cost is one thing, but it’s always a good idea to consider them in the context of your overall goals.
2. Identify candidate tasks
Just because a task is repetitive doesn’t mean it’s a good candidate for automation. Good candidates for automation are those tasks that, if automated, will make a significant contribution to the overall success of the business.
Do you have a key staff member who fulfils a vital function in the business – for example, payroll – and they’re so good at it everybody leaves them to get on with the job. How will the company cope if that person departs?
Critical functions and tasks that contribute to the business’ overall success are often the best candidates for automation or, at the very least, documenting as a process.
Consider prioritising which tasks you will automate first according to their importance in delivering a product or service to market.
3. Document the task
Have the responsible staff member – it may be you – document the steps they take to complete a task.
Include the answers to questions such as: What is the purpose of the job? Are there any obstacles, delays or complex workarounds that are required to complete the task? How long does it take? Why those steps? Is there a better way?
Once you’ve documented the process of completing a task and made some decisions about whether or not it’s necessary, or the best solution, to the business’s overall success, it’s time to research automation solutions.
Avoid magpie syndrome – the tendency to grab every bright and shiny bit of technology that comes along – until you’ve done your homework. Research at least two or three alternatives, but make your decisions based on the goals and priorities you pinpointed early in the process.
It may be worthwhile taking expert advice, bearing in mind that many consultants will be evangelists for particular solutions, so it’s best to consult widely. Many consultants will offer the world to get the sale.
Some business owners like to decide on the best solution for the business and only then call in the experts to ensure smooth implementation.
You may find that some solutions can be utilised in other areas of the business. For example, certain customer relationship systems (CRMs) can be used to manage relationships and bookings.
Brace for an initial cost in time and money when onboarding a solution. At this point, consultants may be worth their weight in gold. Put time and money aside for training and set-up because there is always the risk that people will be people and look for shortcuts, circumventing the process in a way that creates future problems.
We spend more time and money on time and task management apps and systems than we do on actually streamlining the tasks that are consuming all our time. When done well, automating solid business processes is more valuable than all the time management systems put together.