November 16, a dozen executives gathered to exchange ideas about Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Curious about operational excellence, value creation, leading practices, and the benefits of RPA, they shared thoughts and experiences. The round table was hosted by House of Executives and sponsored by TriFinance.
Automating business processes with software robots
RPA or Robotic Process Automation is all about automating business processes with software robots. Dozens of repetitive administrative processes run in every company. Requiring a lot of time from employees, they are actually expensive and create little added value. Robotic Process Automation can take over a good part of repetitive tasks.
RPA, an example
A firm that receives orders by mail on a daily basis needs the data transferred to a formal order form, generally a routine task for one or for several employees. Order forms are then sent to a specific person who will further process the order. From each of these orders, the name of the client, the product or service ordered, the desired quantities, and other data are separately entered.
The process described is a typical repetitive process that RPA tools can easily take over. Running a script with rules, the RPA software learns which data it should copy from the order, where it should paste it into the order, and to whom it should ultimately deliver the order. In this way, you can save time, money and work all the while avoiding retyping errors.
RPA at Recticel: Eighty processes, thirty scenarios
Foam and insulation specialist Recticel started thinking about RPA software about three years ago, says Peter Hoskens, Group Finance Project Manager. ‘We process about 250,000 supplier invoices per year in the SSC and there is simply a limit to the human typing capacity,” Peter says. ‘Our software systems also have limitations because they were not custom made. So, we identified a number of processes that we are automating with RPA, starting with the booking of intercompany invoices between Recticel branches, which cannot be run through EDI”
The process of booking an intercompany invoice was transferred into a structure for which about thirty different scenarios were defined. ‘Using a set of rules and triggers, the robot selects the right scenario,’ Peter Hoskens says. ‘During the exploratory phase, we received a demo from the IT integrator in which the robot booked approximately 100 to 150 invoices per hour. That convinced us immediately (laughs). Meanwhile, our Shared Service Center is located in Poland, where we have also insourced four RPA experts.’
RPA is not a way to downsize our workforce. The robot boosts our productivity, making it possible to do more with the same number of people
Nele Warnez, CFO, Agristo
Software robots as a virtual workforce
‘The processes that qualify for RPA must be repetitive and their volume must be large enough to keep the ROI interesting,’ says Filip Ceulemans, Client Partner at TriFinance. ‘But don’t forget that software robots can be considered to be virtual employees that process large amounts of data in a very short period of time. Dealing with multiple applications, they can easily replace the “human interface”. That’s why we sometimes refer to RPA as the “digital workforce”.’
At Recticel, three RPA robots take care of 80 processes. ‘In the past, order confirmations were printed and then manually entered into the system,’ Peter says. ‘Now a selection of orders is immediately captured by the robot that enters all data directly into the system. The robot even has its own user account: Rob Cop (laughs).
Invoices that come in as email attachments are now also handled by software robots. Recticel used to have an employee who spent some of their time opening the attachments and categorizing them in the correct folder in the system. Now the robot recognizes the invoices all on its own, using, for example, the VAT number, name, address, etc.
‘The robot knows that a specific document is an invoice for, say, Recticel UK,’ Peter says.
About 70 percent of the RPA tools at the foam manufacturer today run in Finance environments, the rest mainly in Sales and Administration. ‘One RPA process sometimes triggers the next. In Procurement and HR we have less active RPA processes.’ Peter Hoskens says.
A selection of orders is immediately captured by the robot that enters all data directly into the system. The robot even has its own user account: Rob Cop
Peter Hoskens, Group Finance Project Manager, Recticel
Promoting RPA in the organization
To familiarize employees with the new way of working, Recticel informs them about RPA automation. The company makes promo videos every quarter, organizing information sessions in the various departments.
Peter also pointed out other processes and applications where RPA can prove its value, ranging from data reconciliation, data validation, reminder processes, data collection, filing, etc. When a company switches from a legacy system to new software, you can use RPA, for example, to transfer and reconcile data very quickly and easily.
A company’s process maturity is of crucial importance for RPA implementations to be successful. To determine which processes are fit for automation, processes should be analyzed from an end-to-end perspective
Filip Ceulemans, CFO Services Client partner
How to upscale RPA projects
‘Organizations that have implemented their first software robots will obviously look for more chances to create value with RPA,’ CFO Services Client Partner Filip Ceulemans says. ‘A company’s process maturity is of crucial importance for RPA implementations to be successful. To determine which processes are fit for automation, processes should be analyzed from an end-to-end perspective, so you can determine if a robot could be a solution to automate a certain process, or automate only parts of it. This stage can be taken care of by business teams. They can design the process and describe how different process steps and different stakeholders involved are linked.’
‘If you want to scale up RPA projects successfully,’ Filip says, ‘you need to combine clear governance and structural pipeline building through process analysis with the right skill set & mindset.’
Before Recticel launches a new RPA Project, approval must be obtained from various business owners. After that, an estimate of the development time and a planning document are made. An important part of this is the 'Process Description Document', which describes each step of the process in great detail. That document serves as a kind of script that the RPA robot must adhere to, illustrated with screenshots. That's important if the process ever changes (so you don't have to start from scratch) or if the original developer leaves the company.
RPA moving towards AI
AI and IT specialist Wouter Denayer, who launched his own start-up after two decades at IBM, pointed out that RPA software is increasingly moving towards AI. ‘Robots are already learning, but still need repetitiveness to do their job. They do not think yet and mainly rely on a decision tree for their actions. A robot needs a clear pattern before it can get started. A controller function that requires thinking and interpreting figures is often still too difficult for RPA.”
According to Peter Hoskens, RPA can help the controller. ‘It can download lists, compare with last month, sort from highest to lowest, making the life of controllers easier in a way that they receive ready-made information enabling them to immediately proceed to analysis.’
RPA can also handle exceptions if a certain action does not fit in the decision tree. At that point, the system can even be instructed to send a warning to a human, so that they can view the exceptional case and resolve it manually.
‘If you have a thousand cases, you have to make sure that you can handle 995 perfectly, without your robot getting stuck on the five exceptions,’ says Filip. ‘We call that exception handling. For those five, the software robot just needs to generate an alert for humans to take action.’
‘If you have a thousand cases, you have to make sure that you can handle 995 perfectly, without your robot getting stuck on the five exceptions. For those five, the software robot just needs to generate an alert for humans to take action.’
Cost savings with RPA
RPA may be a very promising technology, but it doesn't come for free. It became clear during the discussion that it is difficult to say how much a project costs because almost everything is customized.
‘As a company, you have to make a trade-off between what you save on work and people versus what it costs to get the robot programmed,’ Nele Warnez, CFO at Agristo, says.
‘We sometimes get requests from employees for an RPA project for relatively small things that requires a week of programming. We look at that relatively critically. RPA is not a way to downsize our workforce. The robot boosts our productivity, making it possible to do more with the same number of people.’
Peter Hoskens noted that it is sometimes difficult to put hard KPIs on RPA, but for Juan Gyselinck, CFO at ISS, it is a calculated decision. ‘It’s remarkable that staff sometimes ask for RPA themselves,’ Juan says. ‘We don't have that experience. People often still have the idea that they have to 'protect' their job against automation.’
But RPA has more benefits than just financial gains. ‘It forces you to review and evaluate your processes,’ , Filip Ceulemans emphasizes. ‘Before you start automating a process, you have to check whether it is well organized and what can be improved. That really is a must. While checking your processes, you can perfectly select those that are right for RPA.’
The importance of scale and volume
RPA can also prove its worth in many more departments than just accounting and finance. ‘Consider the onboarding process,’ Filip Ceulemans says. ‘New employees must receive group insurance and a laptop, the keys to their company car must be there, appointments must be made for guided tours, ... RPA can schedule meetings, inform colleagues, and arrange the paperwork. These are things where HR loses a lot of time. And RPA has the advantages that it does not forget anything and makes fewer mistakes.”
Joeri Veldeman, VP HR and Transformation at Proximus subsidiary BICS, endorses this vision, but also nuances it. ‘You can certainly achieve efficiency gains, but the volume has to be large enough,’ he says. ‘At BICS we work with a thousand people, so it seems less useful there. Nokia, my previous employer, employed just under 90,000 people. It certainly has its use there and, in effect, at Nokia, almost the entire onboarding process had been robotized.’
The House of Executives November 16 RPA round table was sponsored by TriFinance. The report was written by Frederic Petitjean. This English version is a slightly modified translation of the article.