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According to the 2023 Intelligent Automation Spend & Trends Report, 54% of businesses plan to invest in RPA this year. With 42% of respondents suggesting that they’ve already invested in RPA, it’s fair to say that companies worldwide are waking up to the significant benefits of automation. This widespread adoption makes a lot of sense; what organization wouldn’t want to reduce costs, boost productivity, and have happier employees? 

However, while the benefits of RPA might be crystal clear, the path to automation is often less well understood. The RPA lifecycle has many pitfalls, but you can easily avoid them by applying a prudent strategy. Successful RPA implementation starts with careful assessment and planning before moving on to a rigorous program of testing, deployment, and maintenance. 

Follow these ten robotic process automation steps to ensure your implementation goes as smoothly as possible. This guide will take you all the way from ideation to unleashing your first RPA process.

 

What is the RPA lifecycle?

 

The robotic process automation lifecycle describes the various steps required to design, build, and execute an RPA process. There is plenty of lively and healthy debate about which RPA lifecycle phases you need for a successful implementation. However, the best thinking on the matter has a few stages in common, such as evaluation, testing, measurement, and maintenance. As such, the RPA lifecycle draws upon many of the best practices employed in general software development.

 

Here, we present ten critical RPA stages that will give your project its best chance of success.

 

#1. Establish your objectives

 

Any good RPA life cycle begins with establishing clear objectives. Per the Standish Group, less than 30% of IT projects are delivered successfully. There are many reasons for these dismal figures, including poor scheduling, changing requirements, and a lack of alignment among team members. However, a lack of concrete objectives is one of the most pernicious causes of failure for IT projects.

All business projects or campaigns need explicit goals. They help you stay focused and allow you to set well-defined and measurable targets to work towards. So, before considering the specific RPA processes you want to automate, you must outline why you’re going down this path. 

Define what you want to achieve from the process. Typical RPA objectives include, but are not limited to, some of the following:

  • Driving down costs
  • Boosting productivity
  • Increasing employee satisfaction and retention
  • Becoming more competitive
  • Achieving digital transformation

Whatever your motivation is, ensure you clearly define your aims before you move on to the robotic process automation steps below. 

 

If you need help writing out your objectives, use the SMART acronym. All goals should be:

  • Specific 
  • Measurable
  • Achievable 
  • Relevant 
  • Time-bound 

 

Let’s explore how you can apply the SMART framework to an RPA project. 

 

Example project 

An eCommerce website wants to build a competitor pricing comparison tool so they always offer the lowest prices.

 

Specific:

An RPA bot will scrape data from particular websites at 1-hour intervals, structure the information in a database, and adjust prices on the company website to ensure they are as competitive as their rivals. This automation will replace an existing business process that uses four human workers to do the job.

 

Measurable:

The project will be deemed successful when the four human workers are no longer manually checking and adjusting prices on the websites.

 

Achievable:

The automation can be achieved by implementing an RPA solution that can inspect pages, extract pricing data, and export it to a table. The RPA solutions must also integrate into the Content Management System and have permission to update and publish the new data. 

 

Relevant:

Moving from manual to automated workflows will save the hours of four employee members, thus supporting the organization’s goals to reduce staff overheads.

 

Time-bound:

This project should be achieved within the next three months. Speed of implementation is important, which is another factor for why RPA is the best candidate for the job.

 

#2. Identify the RPA process candidates

 

Next, we move on to one of the most important RPA stages: identifying the processes you want to automate. In the previous RPA lifecycle stage, you outlined your objectives. These goals should inform which tasks you identify as candidates for RPA.  

Let’s say your objective is to save time on payroll processing. During this stage of the RPA development life cycle, you break down all the processes involved in running your payroll. Then, you decide which stages still require manual intervention and which are suitable for an RPA process.

Similarly, if employee satisfaction is your goal, you need to audit your existing workflows and identify repetitive and mundane tasks that occupy your worker’s time.

As you perform this research, you’ll get a sense of how many work hours or other resources you can save through RPA implementation. Remember, for RPA to be worthwhile, the tasks and processes you automate need to be of a high enough volume.

 

Example process

A shipping company is hit hard by employee turnover. The problem is hurting productivity and client service levels. An internal survey reveals that employee satisfaction is low due to high volumes of repetitive work, such as chasing and updating shipping queries. 

In a bid to increase employee satisfaction, the shipping company identifies the need for an automated system that replaces manual searches for shipping carrier updates. The RPA processes involved include:

 

  • A bot searches shipping provider websites and provides delivery updates to its internal business systems

 

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  • A bot emails or texts customers in real-time, reducing customer support tickets, calls, and queries.

 

#3. Run feasibility tests

 

RPA feasibility testing involves diving deep into each RPA process you’ve identified in the previous RPA project life cycle stages and truly understanding its viability.  You can break your RPA feasibility assessment into three distinct phases.

 

Phase 1: Process assessment

 

Your RPA process assessment should be as detailed as possible. While tools like ZAPTEST use Computer Vision Technology (CVT) to capture and mimic the human-computer interactions that encompass a task, you should still document each step down to the keystroke. Now is the time to find out if the tasks you want to automate are truly rule-based, step-driven processes.

 

Phase 2: Technical assessment:

 

Next, you need to consider more technical issues. For example, if you want to realize ROI, you need high transaction volumes. Similarly, you need to consider things like the scalability of your project, the stability of the programs your RPA tools will interact with, and how amenable your organization is to new workflows and RPA implementation.

Think about the type of data inputs and outputs required for the task. If the inputs use structured data, that’s good. If they’re unstructured, you may need additional applications or templates to resolve the issue. 

After that, you should think about your software stack. How can you integrate your RPA software within your current technological environment? 

 

Phase 3: ROI assessment: 

 

Your project likely has a budget. And you’ve probably canvassed around to get a general sense of how much RPA workflow implementation might cost. Now, you need to crunch the numbers and see if implementing RPA tools is not just cost-effective but that it will make your business money. McKinsey Digital suggests that RPA projects can bring an ROI of between 30% and 200% within the first year. That’s a pretty wide range, so try for a tighter ballpark.

 

Example process

A mid-sized bank has expanded into a new region. As part of its strategy, it offers loans to new consumers. However, processing these loans is performed manually, putting considerable strain on current employees. 

Management performs a feasibility test to confirm the following:

  • Process: Loan approval is based on strict criteria; human intervention is not required for decision-making because it’s rule-based
  • Technical: Application forms include structured data, which the RPA bot can process and return an approval or denial
  • ROI: Dealing with loan applications manually will require the employment of five new team members, so implementing an RPA system will be far more cost-effective. ROI is assured.

 

#4. Pick the right RPA solution

 

Once you’ve put in the hard yards to understand your objectives, outlined the processes you want to automate, and assessed the feasibility of your project, it’s time to move on to vendor selection. It’s essential to do your due diligence on a vendor and their solution, but there are no hard and fast rules here. A lot depends on the size and scope of your project, which employees will use RPA, your budget, and a whole host of other factors.

 

Here are some of the main things to consider.

 

Project requirements: 

 

Explore vendors with a track record within your space. While RPA tools are flexible, finding vendors with experience in your industry can help your RPA development life cycle move more quickly. Yet, perhaps more importantly, you should consider the size and scope of your project and look for vendors based on these parameters. 

For example, this is a good time to consider how widely your RPA projects will be used across your business. If it’s a large project requiring many seats, licensing costs are an essential consideration. Similarly, if your business is pursuing aggressive growth or the upsides of a successful RPA rollout will enable you to scale, then a solution that offers unlimited licenses under one subscription price will make sense.

 

Technology: 

 

Think about your project and the specific tools you need to realize your objectives. Some things to consider here are the number of licenses needed,  the availability of computer vision technology, reusable code, cross-platform scripting, API integrations, and much more. Try to align the vendor’s USP with your requirements.

Again, a lot of your decisions will be influenced by the specific scope of your project. For example, many businesses and governments around the world are still reliant on legacy systems. There are lots of reasons why organizations don’t migrate from these outdated applications, including cost, excessive complication, and even the recognition that while these systems are old, they still more or less do the job to an acceptable level.

RPA tools are an excellent way to draw these tools into modernity. While APIs, integration platforms, and manual workers are all methods that can read and write data from these systems, RPA tools are a much more cost-effective method. What’s more, the modular nature of these RPA software means that you can extend legacy systems into solutions that deliver more robust workflows.

Other technologies that can give your RPA workflow process an edge include cross-application and cross-platform tools. If you have business processes that involve integrations between different devices and applications or collaboration between remote teams, RPA can offer the versatility you want.

 

Ease-of-use:

 

RPA solutions are built to allow non-technical teams to get the most from automation. No-code or scriptless tools with intuitive interfaces are the best option here. Coding takes a lot of time and requires access to skilled developers. No-code tools, on the other hand, are only limited by your worker’s creativity and problem-solving skills. 

Of course, ease of use goes beyond having an intuitive user interface (UI). The concept also extends to effective onboarding that ensures that your team knows how to get the most from your automation investment. We’d recommend thinking carefully about the differences between a Software + Services licensing model and a Software-only licensing model. 

 

Support:

 

Customer support is crucial, especially for teams embarking on RPA projects for the first time. What’s more, responsive support is a must when you are automating business-critical workflows. 

Some tools, like ZAPTEST, offer access to a dedicated expert to help implement and maintain your solution over the entire RPA lifecycle. Certified ZAP Experts are trained in a number of disciplines relating to automation, including RPA implementation best practices. Our experts can help you plan and develop workflow processes. Moreover, thanks to their experience with software testing automation, they can assist with functional and performance testing, which we will explore in step 7 of this guide.

Aside from dedicated support, look out for RPA solutions with a vibrant user community; forums are an excellent repository of information.

 

Price:

 

Price is always a factor to consider. No one is operating with an unlimited budget. Bear in mind that the most expensive tool isn’t always the best. So, look out for value when selecting a vendor.

Most RPA solutions use monthly or annual licenses. However, what you get for your subscription varies widely with each vendor. Look for points of difference between providers, especially things like unlimited licenses. As you expand your RPA capabilities or scale your business, unlimited licenses ensure that your costs are fixed and predictable. 

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On top of that, look for vendors that include first-class support within your package. For example, our Enterprise package provides a ZAP Expert to work alongside your team to deliver an implementation that gets results. The costs of a subscription can be offset against the salary of a technical staff member, which translates into serious value.

 

Reputation:

 

A vendor’s reputation is an essential indicator of reliability and quality. These days, we can all access online reviews to find out. Also, don’t be afraid to ask vendors for relevant case studies or testimonials.

If you want to partner with an RPA solution or offer white-label services, speak to your vendor and seek counsel from existing consultants and partners. These solutions also work well for agencies and business service providers. 

 

#5. Design 

 

Design is an essential stage of RPA lifecycle management. It’s the point when all your planning and research takes shape. Here, you can draw from the information produced during the feasibility testing stage and build maps for your RPA process.

At this juncture, you can start to build a Process Design Document (PDD). Thanks to the availability of communication tools and cloud hosting, these documents can be very collaborative. Encourage stakeholder cooperation where appropriate to ensure you have a depth of opinion.

Once you have a model of the process, you can then map out dependencies. These can be anything from specific applications, databases, and spreadsheets that serve as the trigger, input, or output for your process. 

If Process A can’t be completed without Process B, you have a dependency. Of course, that is the simplest case. Larger projects with multiple interdependent processes can quickly become a mess of dependencies, so it’s a good idea to build a process map.

 

#6. Develop

 

Development is one of the most exciting parts of your RPA implementation. This is where all your research turns into something tangible. Depending on which RPA vendor you’ve chosen, this stage can be highly complex and require some technical skills or very user-friendly and intuitive. 

ZAPTEST offers two different ways to develop RPA processes. Firstly, you can use an onscreen recorder to observe a human worker as they perform the task that you want to transform into an RPA workflow. Our technology records the task and breaks it down into editable steps. Alternatively, you can use workflow mapping software with drag-and-drop capabilities to program the steps required. 

 

#7. Test

 

This next robotic process automation life cycle stage is critical. While your process automation might be complete, you must put it through its paces before going live. Some RPA processes are very simple, while others are more complex due to dependencies, transaction volumes, or other factors.

At this point, you can test out your process in a staging environment to ensure it’s running as you expect. Software testing automation tools can help ensure you’re covered from all angles by creating a range of scenarios that your RPA could face. You should build detailed test scripts that measure outputs against expected results alongside running scenarios. 

Performance and load testing are also vital for ensuring your RPA processes are durable enough to stand the strains of everyday use. Additionally, while your testing team is best placed to verify if your RPA implementation is functioning properly, consider asking users and other stakeholders for their thoughts, too.

Keep meticulous records and record any abnormalities that must be addressed.

 

#8. Measure 

 

There are a large number of metrics that you can use to measure the success and performance of your automation attempts. Many of these metrics will be directly indexed to the goals and objections you’ve established in Step 1. However, others will be related to considerations like speed of deployment, ROI, and so on.

RPA is a constant process. While the idea is to set it and let it run, you should constantly monitor your processes to ensure they deliver your desired returns and optimal performance.

Here is a list of some popular RPA metrics

  • Velocity: The average time it takes for the process to complete from end to end
  • Accuracy: A percentage measure of the accuracy of processed data
  • Expected business value: A measure of time, money, or other resources that your RPA process saves your business
  • Downtime: Time in hours or days where the RPA process is unavailable

 

#9. Backup plan

 

While RPA workflow deployment is about leaving the old ways behind, you should always have a backup plan. As any IT professional or business leader knows, things can go wrong at any point, and they often do at the worst time possible. 

If you use RPA processes to handle critical tasks, you need a business continuity plan in case something goes wrong. Backup plans will vary depending on the implementation, but they could include pivoting manual workers to complete vital tasks during downtime. 

 

#10. Deploy and maintain

 

Once you’ve checked off these RPA implementation steps, it’s time to unleash your RPA solution into a production environment.

RPA processes have a lot of dependencies. While your process may stay the same, integrated applications, spreadsheets, and databases can change. Or, just as likely, security credentials can change. When this happens, it can cause your RPA process to return exceptions. Scheduled monitoring, testing, and maintenance schedules can help ensure maximum uptime. 

 

Final thoughts

 

RPA process implementation should be the result of considered and deliberate planning. By following these ten steps, you give your project the best chance of success. IT projects have an unacceptably high failure rate. Don’t become a statistic. Follow these steps, and you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the benefits of an RPA project that delivers value.

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Alex Zap Chernyak

Alex Zap Chernyak

Founder and CEO of ZAPTEST, with 20 years of experience in Software Automation for Testing + RPA processes, and application development. Read Alex Zap Chernyak's full executive profile on Forbes.


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