Do you optimize first or dive right into automation? In this age of digital transformation and constant disruption, the answer is - it depends! However, in order to narrow down a more pinpointed answer; we need to first understand the literal meaning of both, their differences and similarities, their usefulness in practical ground. So here we go -
Optimization vs. Automation
Optimization refers to making the best or most relevant use of a product, situation and resource. For example, in computing; optimization could mean rewriting or rearranging a software or data to improve its overall efficiency. It is the practice of making strategic changes, pinpointed facelifts and real-time modifications to an already existent product to make it become more accessible, useful and relevant.
Automation on the contrary is a technology leveraging on which a process or procedure can be performed efficiently, without any human intervention. When used correctly, according to the relevance of the situation, and based on the requirement; it can bring measurable and defined set of improvements in terms of quality, accuracy and precision.
Short for RPA, robotic process automation is fast defining the changing technological landscape of informed, articulate, and relevant automation. Although companies across verticals have been automating tasks (systems integration, ERPs, improving workflows, speeding processes with greater accuracy etc). Robotic automation dishes out fresh stuff altogether. To put it differently, "Robotics essentially replicates the interactions of a human using the same interfaces a human would, whereas automation is more about direct integration with IT systems at a data level"(Source)
RPA is technology agnostic - which means they can work across legacy ERPs, mainframes, and applications. If it can be done by a human, it can essentially be done by a robot; perhaps with far greater accuracy and perfection. RPAs do not require complex integration thereby they can be launched faster and thus they cost less. There are many other reasons RPAs are essentially being used for process automation namely they contribute to a greater, shared knowledge base, and they break through IT bottlenecks
Process optimization or robotics
Answering to the question - between optimization and robotics; which should come first, we have an interesting answer. Without automation, could there be optimization? And; without optimization, could there by automation? The answer is NO.
The usefulness of either one depends on the existence of both. An informed optimization is extremely crucial for the initiation of a process and when it comes to streamlining the process and continuing the stability of the process, all it requires is automation. Robotic automation, in present day context, brings enhanced stability into process, mitigates risks, improves productivity, lower total cost of ownership of a product etc.
Many businesses have standalone operational areas; which require them to execute hundreds and thousands of time-consuming business processes every day. Most of such tasks while moderately complexare fundamentally rules-based and therefore they don’t require human intervention. This is where automation dives in, improving the scope of a process already defined and designed by optimization.
Lean six sigma and automation
There is a high relevance of Lean Six Sigma belts to Robotic Process automation. A quote of Bill Gates summarizes the relation between these two
The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.
To leverage on the complete potential of RPA, a business needs to ensure that its People, Process and Technology are fully aligned and that's when they need to take lean six sigma very seriously!