As it often happens with buzzwords, automation and optimization get thrown around a lot. Many times these terms are used interchangeably, even when it’s not quite the case.
This bit of confusion doesn’t diminish their business value, however. Businesses have been optimizing their operations in an effort to keep up with growing demand for ages, while automation has been gaining in popularity more and more in recent years.
Is there an overlap between the two?
Optimization is a broader term than automation and is defined as an act, process, or methodology of making something (such as a design, system, or decision) as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible.
Some examples of optimization include:
- Introducing new methods, practices, and systems that reduce production time or cost of production
- Automation of repetitive tasks in various segments of work
- Machine-learning techniques that improve equipment operation and help predict any obstructions
- Reducing various kinds of waste such as energy, scrap, and repetition of work due to low quality or faulty components
As we can see, automation is just one of the ways how work can be optimized. Generally speaking, it entails the use of machines and computers that can operate without needing human control. It’s often implemented with the goal of reducing human error and variability when it comes to the end result.
How automation affects business
To determine if automation is a good fit, there are certain characteristics we can look at for an answer:
- the operation is repetitive, consisting of the same basic work motions in every cycle
- the operation is hazardous or uncomfortable for a worker (things like spray painting, spot welding, arc welding, and certain machine loading and unloading tasks)
- the task requires a work part or tool that is heavy and awkward to handle
- the operation allows the robot to be used for a significantly longer period of time
While it’s often associated with factory work and assembly lines, examples of automation can be found in many other areas of work.
One of the examples is rail transportation in the US, which includes urban mass-transit systems such as BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco, MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) in Atlanta, and the Metrorail in Washington, D.C.
The BART consists of more than 75 miles (120 kilometers) of tracks, with more than 100 trains operating at rush hours between roughly 30 stations. The trains attain speeds of up to 80 miles per hour with intervals between trains of as little as 90 seconds. In each train, there is an operator whose role is to observe, communicate and override the automatic system in case of emergency. The automatic system protects both the trains and passengers by ensuring a safe distance between them and by controlling their speed.
Banking and financial institutions have also embraced automation in their operations. They use it for the processing of large volumes of documents and financial transactions. The sorting of checks, for example, is done by optical character-recognition systems using special alphanumeric characters found at the bottom. Bank balances are computed and recorded using systems installed by virtually all financial institutions. Automatic teller machines have also brought in change to the banking sector. Located in easy to access areas for the bank’s clients, these automatic tellers allow them to complete basic transactions in little time and just as efficiently as if they were served by one of the employees.
Marketing and sales have also benefited from automation. Marketing automation is all about using software to automate repetitive tasks such as email marketing, social media posting, and even ad campaigns to a certain point. Sales automation, on the other hand, is centered around assisting sales teams in their everyday activities. It provides the assets, tools, frameworks, and resources that facilitate a complex sales process involving many channels of communication. One of the key benefits for both is efficiency, but it also helps with providing a more personalized experience for customers and clients.
What to do when automation isn’t an option?
While automation is certainly a great option in many cases, sometimes it just doesn’t cut it. Areas of work that prioritize flexibility leave little room for automation and require a different approach.
This, however, shouldn’t deter companies from trying to optimize as much of their work as possible. Technology can still play a significant role, just not quite in the same way. While it might not be possible to automate the full scope of a work assignment, that doesn’t mean that minimizing repetitive work or reducing the time spent on arbitrary activities isn’t beneficial.
By reducing time spent on these tasks, people in our team now have more time to dedicate to strategic, more engaging areas of work where their contribution is much more needed. This is especially significant since research has shown a negative correlation between repetitive work and employee engagement.
To create the best optimization strategy, companies should zero in on three core questions if they want to achieve the most optimal results:
- What are the long-term and short-term goals of the optimization?
- What teams and departments are going to be a part of it?
- What resources do we need to achieve the set goals?
Keep in mind that these resources don’t need to be physical assets. They can be in the form of training sessions, software solutions or even external consulting for management that provides a better perspective on how the improvements can be made.
With all this in mind, a balance of automation and other optimization strategies is what provides companies with the best results. Taking a birds eye view at the company’s business activities from time to time, can help with identifying what and when should be done. This type of proactive self-assessment leads to not only a better work environment for the team, but also content clients and growing revenues for the company in the long run.