RPA vs. BPM - Can the Two Coexist?
Can BPM and RPA coexist? What do they do differently?
An article by Shyamal Addanki, Director NA
I had the opportunity to present on BPM and FireStart at a webinar recently, and the topic of the presentation just before mine was on RPA and how organizations can use bots to automate processes. Naturally, when it was my turn to present, the question above was asked before I began. A great segue between the two topics, and a question I get asked quite often at conferences.
My short answer: Yes, the two can coexist because they solve two different problems.
There are many websites that go into details and discussions about the differences between RPA and BPM, and in some cases these can be quite lively discussions about whether one can do the job of the other. A lot of these articles are written by practitioners and experts in both fields, and are littered with industry jargon and terminology. For someone just dipping their toes into these topics, it can be confusing.
Therefore, this is not another such jargon-filled article. This is an article about McDonald’s.
In 1940, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their first barbecue drive-in restaurant in California. This was the time when drive-ins were gaining in popularity, and car-hops were delivering food directly to customers in their automobiles. However, production times were still high, deliveries were not prompt, and customers often did not receive their food hot. At the time, there was only one solution to the issue: A short-order cook. Short-order cooks specialized in cooking foods that did not have a long prep time. They would command a large grilling station and could process many different orders at the same time. Since this required skill and training, good short-order cooks were in high demand by the many drive-ins in California, and were hard to find and expensive to hire.
Recognizing this issue, the McDonald brothers closed their restaurant and worked on a new process they called their “Speedee Service System”, revamping the restaurant model based on an automobile assembly line. Instead of using specialized labor, such as short-order cooks, the Speedee system employed a lot of unskilled workers, each with a small, specific step in the production process. The process itself was incredible lean – instead of making a large variety of foods, the process was designed to make a few items very quickly. They opened their new “fast-food” restaurant – and the rest is famous history. Their process has now been copied, used, and evolved into every fast-food chain worldwide.
What Does This Have to do With BPM and RPA?
I like to use the McDonald’s analogy when discussing BPM and RPA. There might be better comparisons, but the first time someone asked me the BPM vs RPA question, I was sipping on a McDonald’s coffee after just having finished an Egg McMuffin. In fact, I had ordered my breakfast using one of the automatic kiosks, swiped my credit card, and proceeded to the pick-up counter for my meal. The process behind the scenes was the usual – McDonald’s employees were assembling sandwiches, frying hash browns, and prepping ingredients. But the cashier had just been replaced with a robot.
McBPM: An End-to-End Process
Start > Customer places order > Kitchen receives order, prepares food > Kitchen places meal in warming tray > Cashier dispenses drinks > Cashier provides food and drinks to customer > End.
There is a process here, and there are even sub-processes into which some of those steps could break down. If we monitor this process, we can find room for improvement and ways to reduce waste. As part of BPM, we can certainly involve process automation – instead of having the cashier shout out the order to the kitchen (bad data quality) or print out and hand a paper slip to the kitchen (time & material wastage), the ordering system populates a screen in the kitchen, letting the crew know what they need to prepare. Instead of the cashier also pouring drinks, many fast-food restaurants now just give the customer a cup and point to the self-serve soda fountains.
RPA Fries: Automating Repetitive Tasks
The cashier’s specific task was to listen to the customer’s order, input it into the system, collect money, provide change, and then provide the meal to the customer. Well, if we can robotize most of those functions, then the only task that a human needs to perform is to provide the meal from the kitchen to the customer. For now.
BPM for Processes, RPA for Tasks – The Full Meal
BPM is about your overall processes, end-to-end. You can focus on specific tasks if you want to, but you really should be looking at the context of the task. What data is required to perform the task, and how is it provided to the user? What data comes out of the task, where is it needed, and how does it get there?
RPA is about the task. What repetitive functions can be automated? Can a human teach a bot to do part of their daily work?
In the McDonald’s analogy, automating the cashier was the RPA. However, digitizing the transfer of order information from the cashier to the kitchen falls under BPM. Both functions are key elements for performance improvement and both can definitely coexist.
If you are starting down the road of digital transformation, where should you begin? Personally, I would start with BPM. BPM will help you first establish and improve your processes, and to automate tasks and events. Once this is in place, it is easier to analyse the human-centric tasks that remain and see how you can use RPA to further optimize your processes.
So, would you like fries with that?