OWNER'S MANUAL

How to Automate Your Business for Fast Growth

Automation isn't just for corporate giants. Use these eight tips to get your business running more efficiently and effectively.
Kiva Systems robots at work.
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Every business faces fierce competition--both in terms of sales and, just as importantly, efficiency and effectiveness.

That's where automation comes in: To remain competitive you need to automate--or someone else will automate you out of business.

I talked to Randy Clark, Chief Marketing Officer of UC4 Software, the IT process automation company that helps over 2,000 businesses automate tens of millions of operations each day.

While UC4 works with a number of major corporations, a significant percentage of their customers are small to midsize businesses that need leading edge automation in order to control costs and accommodate significant growth rates (which to me sounds like every business).

Here are Clark's tips for introducing and implementing automation into your business:

1. Automate the easiest processes first.

Pick rote tasks where there is no human value-add. Automation lets you avoid human error while saving time in execution.

2. Build a culture that embraces automation.

While that sounds "big company," it's actually more applicable to small businesses (and easier to pull off).

Employees are often reluctant to embrace automation because they're concerned they'll automate themselves out of a job. Yet in most businesses, the highest performers tend to automate the most, whether formally or informally. (That's one reason why they're top performers.) Those are the people who automate themselves out of the current job and into the next job.

When you talk about automation, talk about the benefits to employees, both in their current functions and in how it will allow them to grow into higher-level positions. Automating easy processes first will allow you to walk the talk.

3. Start small and focus on one business function.

For example, UC4 worked with a company that was provisioning new smartphones in about 20 minutes. "After automation, they cut the time to two minutes," Clark says. "The business value was huge."

Pick a function with a solid ROI. Then pick another function. Once you get a few wins under your belt, your employees will be asking you to automate certain functions. You won't have to push your employees; they'll pull you in.

4. Automate the process away.

When you start to automate, at first you define the process, then you codify it, then you automate it, and often what naturally happens is the process starts to collapse.

Ultimately, the process goes away because it is in support of some other process that you automate.

Collapsing a process generates value; collapsing processes of processes generates tremendous value. Don't be afraid to chip away instead of taking on the whole thing.

Many of UC4′s customers start small and automate incrementally; they don't tackle massive all-encompassing initiatives. Financially that's a great approach since you don't need to fund a major project.

5. Create an automation service bureau.

Once you reach a certain scale, you'll find you have one or two automation experts in your organization, plus a few more employees who are on the periphery but aren't experts. Don't be afraid to set up your own "automation service bureau." If you're seeing the results you should, creating a few positions focused solely on automation will more than pay for itself.

6. Build a history.

Document what you do: Where you started, what you spent, what the results are, etc., and do that for every project. If you don't, you'll take for granted how far you've come and you'll hesitate to pull the trigger on projects that may yield incredible ROIs.

Celebrate your success--and document your success. Guaranteed you'll find you accomplished more than you thought.

7. Learn from the leaders.

Find the automation expert at a big company and pull them in to lead your initiative.

Those people add tremendous value immediately. They have the vision to see where you can be in two to three years, they know how to do it right, they understand the organizational change management required. They know how to start small and end up big.

8. Pick a technology partner.

If you reach the point where you want to bring in a vendor, the key is to look out a few years and ensure your partner has the right level of scope, innovation, and technology, and can scale with you.

Think about where you want to be in three years. Make sure your vendor can support that vision and the economics work for your business.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Jan 31, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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