Will RPA exacerbate bad process habits as time goes by?

I can’t help but notice that while RPA (Robotic Process Automation) is normally considered to be a good companion of the Business Process Management Automation, it can easily become an adversary of a quality BPM. Many processes, subject to RPA, are notoriously inefficient. It is very tempting to replace slow human beings with fast robots, of course. But the bots will learn and inherit all inefficiencies and ass-backward ways of doing things from people without questioning anything (yes, the best AI/ML is not that sophisticated yet).

It might seem OK (as we are still executing faster and cheaper, aren’t we?), but replacing a human with a bot makes the process execution opaque. Process inefficiencies become free from critique and revisions – a robot just does what it was told or learned to do.

Companies may quickly get caught up in automating the wrong processes, non-optimized processes, or even too much of a process” (UiPath on why RPA deplayments fail)

Most talks are centered on RPA implementation to start ripping  the benefits of automation ASAP. But about later stages? How sustainable an RPA deployment really is?

Obviously, it is not advisable to automate a bad process whether through a BPM App or an RPA. But an RPA has the most potential of turning even little process inefficiencies into a big problem in time. Why? Because an enterprise changes in time. As difficult as it is with humans, adopting those changes by bots is likely to be even more challenging. An RPA automation which is a result of Machine Learning process is not like a script of a traditional screen scraping, and cannot be easily visualized and modified according to changing needs; it will require re-learning.  So even a very well implemented RPA is potentially a time bomb.

Besides, learning from a human tacitly discourages documenting. But if things go wrong and robot goes crazy, no knowledgeable human might be left to take over the failing process execution. The process documentation can be the only fallback for the under-performing technology, and it might not be there.

RPA vendors warn that an RPA adoption is a “journey” and requires planning, good foresight as well as maintenance. Nevertheless,  the emphasis is still on deployment. The process engineering and ongoing maintenance concerns are  muffled, even though they are well understood in general Business Process Management practice.

Bottom line: Robotic Process Automation is in its hype but it must rely (like nothing else) on rigorous Business Process Management discipline and continuous improvement in its broad sense to yield sustainable results. RPA promises immediate gains in efficiency and productivity but its long term effects are not well understood. Down the road they can lead to  problems caused by the opaque nature of RPA mechanics, and lack of attention to keeping RPA programming in sync with changes.

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2 thoughts on “Will RPA exacerbate bad process habits as time goes by?”

  • Make sure that the business process you are targeting for RPA has a simple decision tree and minimal exceptions; pilot the solution and then try a soft launch before moving into production. You may find that the RPA administration is requires dedicated headcount. I agree with the thesis – we are in the early days.

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