Mike Minahan is a director at the RAC, transforming part of the organisation via an implementation of a robotic process automation solution. As part of our series OutsourceXplores Post-Human BPO in association with Genfour, we got together with Mike to discuss this project, his broader experience in the field, and his thinking on where robotics can take outsourcing and business generally…
Outsource: Mike, thank you very much for joining us. Can we begin with some background on who you are, what you do, and why robotic process automation is a topic of such interest for you?
Mike Minahan: I am currently Director of Sales and Service for the RAC. I’ve been in the role for the past 18 months; prior to that I worked for Capita for nine years across a number of functions, ranging from TV licensing to congestion charging to Capita insurance services.
My key deliverable was to design and manage the delivery of a full transformation of the existing target operating model supported by investment in the specific technology
O: Was robotic process automation something that you had in mind right from the start of this project?
MM: Yes. During my years at Capita, one of my responsibilities was reviewing a lot of different target operating models and ensuring we operated a continuous improvement program. One alternative operating model is to utilise offshore resources like India, the Philippines or new options in Europe like Poland for example; another option is to operate an effective management and performance management environment, supported by underlying technology. During my time in Capita I was involved in initially reviewing robotic automation as a potential solution as part of a target operating model. Specifically, in process areas that are heavily supported by manual intervention. For example, exception reports that come out in different outputs from various systems that then have to be reinputted into said systems by manual intervention. Using this technology there was the opportunity to create an automated process, where you could set specific business rules to reinput without the need for manual intervention and make the end-to-end process more efficient and reduce your costs on the manual intervention requirement
O: So what was it specifically about the challenges that you were facing at the RAC that made you think that this was going to be the right way forward?
MM: The RAC has recently changed ownership. Previously it was owned by Aviva, which bought it a number of years ago with the strategic aim of increasing their insurance PIF count by cross-marketing the existing RAC membership base. Throughout that period they had a number of systems which maybe lacked investment and became much more bespoke than they were actually required to be.
From my experience when you make the decision to bespoke a system, at the time you believe you have done so for the right reason: tactical rather than strategic, more real time here-and-now that you think about, rather than what the impact it may have in years to come. You create issues around exception handling that are accepted as BAU: “Oh we need to make this change; it’s going to generate this amount of extra manual work but don’t worry: we need to make this change as it is mandatory.” So if you think of that over five years, eventually what you end up with is a large amount of work being done as exception handling which costs you significantly in manual intervention.
When we carried out a full overview of all the target operating models across all the channels and all the end-to-end processes, it was evident that we had significant exception handling processes: it was basic inputting, mainly dealing with exception outputs. We identified that we would be able to put in some robotic automation with a rules engine to reduce manual intervention requirement and speed up the end-to-end process and reduce our costs.
During my time at Capita we were already working with a robotic automation business which was Blue Prism. We were trialling their solution in different areas of Capita, and we were achieving various degrees of success. In some cases we were probably too ambitious, trying to run before we could walk. The early lessons we learned as part of the trial was to categorise your potential processes as candidates for the solution into tier one processes, where actually an achievable success would be to say get a 90% completion rate, continually refine then achieve up to 100% completion rate; then tier two, more complex processes; and then tier three which would be your most complicated processes.
At the RAC using the lessons I had learned from the trials in Capita, very quickly we did an evaluation of all of our exception handling processes and we identified the top ten: we looked at tier one, tier two, tier three but we also looked at volume and at average handle time for manual intervention processes. We then engaged with Genfour; I had previously worked with [MD] James Hall in Capita, they offered added value services with the implementation of Blue Prism. As part of that process James brought his team in and we mapped the processes in detail, and looked at all the challenges: technology challenges (because there’s always technology challenges) and infrastructure challenges, and the fact that the RAC was going through a significant transformation programme anyway which had been launched from the changeover of ownership. It was all accelerated implementation; we learnt a lot of lessons on the first implementation which we then incorporated into the second, third and fourth implementations – we have now established industrial processes that support speedy implementation.
There is also some development required on the Blue Prism side to design the module so that it integrates into your core systems. We are confident that we now have a process where we can identify by select criteria processes that are suitable for our robotic solution and we can get them implemented very quickly, within six weeks.
O: You say you’ve learned “a lot of lessons” from the first couple of implementations: can you give us some idea of what they might be?
MM: We underestimated the complexity of our core systems and how bespoke they actually were. We underestimated the impact on our existing infrastructure, the size of it and obviously the complexity that sat in our existing network. The solution required a TDA, and we needed to ensure that it was compliant with our TDA strategy. I think also, our understanding of the impact of some of these exception handling processes that are revenue generating was greatly enhanced as part of the project. There were also normal challenges you’d expect with any kind of implementation, especially something as specific and bespoke as robotic automation – because even though it’s a module it’s specific to your exception process. So there’s always some design required. On our part we had to recognise that online slots we had to redesign some of our processes, where initially I think the team thought, “well it’s just a matter of we keep the same process and we just automate it” – but actually you have an opportunity to refine and optimise the process and then automate it.
O: How much support was being delivered from outside, from Genfour, and how much by the internal team?
MM: There was a total cooperative approach. James and his team brought the expertise as far as Blue Prism software and what was the art of the possible. My team had the subject matter experts; and then our colleagues from IT were looking at the technical challenges and specifically the knowledge they had around core systems – which as I stated before were highly bespoke. It was actually a great demonstration of a joint effort. We had some significant challenges, and there are different personalities involved when you look at bringing teams together – and when things are initially are not going according to the plan, you have to go through the “storming and forming” of the team, to create the one team.
During the project life cycle there was good healthy tension between the teams; for me that gives me the assurance that the right challenge is happening and the right commitment’s there – and the passion to deliver is in the right place
O: What does this mean in terms of who you’re recruiting to work on this? Are you looking for different skills now?
MM: No, We created the expertise in-house, and we have a team of probably four individuals – who we’d say are our Blue Prism experts and also our process automation experts – that has evolved as part of the implementation. This has taken a lot of knowledge transfer from James’ team. I think we’ve got a healthy balance now and as far as recruitment is concerned I don’t really need to recruit anyone. The thing that this has done for me is delivered significant savings in our back office exception handling support. We’ve reduced our back office support by 35% on exception handling.
O: Is that the kind of level that it’s going to stay at now?
MM: No, I think as you bring on new processes, because we’re a progressive organisation, on the leading edge of the industry sector that we’re in, change is ever present. We are now able to include robotic automation as part of any process design or development; where there is a need to create bespoke processes and add in extra costs by manual intervention we’re able to circumvent that very quickly and identify if the process or the exception as a result of the process is a candidate for automation. We’ve already identified that there are eight or ten processes this year that we’re going to automate.
O: And what about extending that into other areas of the organisation? Other functions or other activities?
MM: I think we’ve got enough on our plate at the moment with the processes that we want to do! And of course the business is coming to an end of an 18-month transformation project, where people then need to provide the ROI that was identified as part of the initial investment, so I think their focus is on that. In our area part of our investment was Blue Prism so we are focussed on delivering the ROI on the back of the robotic automation.
O: Can you give us any idea in terms of how you’ve overcome some of the HR challenges?
MM: We are a seasonal business; during these period we operate an increased ratio of temp staff. Robotic automation has enabled us as business to reduce reliance on temporary resource and reduce our costs
O: Winding up, then: what have been the key takeaways in terms of the learnings that you’ve developed from this experience – and how might this be applicable to other organisations?
MM: If you are considering robotic automation you can’t just consider it in isolation. You need to understand your core systems, and the potential impact to them – because either way it has to communicate to your core systems. Then you need to understand where does this fit in your list of priorities as far as strategy is concerned; we probably underestimated how long it would take because of the challenges that we didn’t really understand. You then need to have a clear view on what is your measure of success. We knew what ours was as I had I brought my knowledge and experience from Capita.
O: Finally, what are your longer-term aims with this – and where do you think the technology can go really?
MM: I think the longer-term aim for us is to have a strategy to identify processes where we can leverage knowledge and the technology that we’ve got with Blue Prism for automation. I think we need to be realistic; you know you can’t do every process. With a clear strategy you can make a significant impact in your business by improving your process effectiveness and reducing your costs.