Lean and RPA: a combination with golden results at childcare SmallSteps

Every organization has processes that are labor-intensive and consist of a lot of repetitive work. A good solution, of course, is to automate these processes. But automation is not the right choice for every process. A good alternative could be Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Smallsteps child care has also recently begun to fully commit to this. And to avoid robotizing processes that are inefficient, Symbol was flown in to train employees in Lean and process optimization.

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In short, with RPA, processes can be streamlined quickly, easily and without changes to the ICT infrastructure. Indeed, with RPA, “virtual robots” are built to perform repetitive operations. “A lot of what humans can do and what is structured can be robotized,” says Dion Morskieft, RPA developer at Smallsteps. “I think a great example to start with is our incoming invoice process. Every year, our Finance department – where I used to work – receives 50,000 invoices from preferred suppliers. Handling those invoices involved a lot of repetitive actions. I had been tentatively fiddling with RPA since 2017 and saw the opportunity to robotize this process. Thanks to a robot, 50 to 60 percent of incoming invoices are now robotized. The joke is: I made myself redundant as a result. No problem, because I really wanted to focus entirely on RPA within Smallsteps – I was enthusiastic and saw an awful lot of possibilities. Fortunately, I got that chance.”


An RPA development program (and Lean should not be missing)

Although Morskieft now holds the title of RPA developer (and is also called the RPA guru by his colleagues), he is not the only one working on robotization within Smallsteps. On the contrary. As many as 20 Smallsteppers are currently undergoing RPA training. “As MT, we also quickly saw the opportunities that RPA offers our organization,” says director Marieke Bokkinga. “So how great is it when many more people can do this? We are a learning organization and like to challenge people beyond their expertise. So we put out a call to anyone who thought it would be fun to join an RPA development program. As many as twenty people from seven different departments responded. They are now following a program that consists, on the one hand, of an online course in which they actually learn to build robots. On the other hand, we engaged Symbol to provide Lean training and coach people on the job in process optimization.”


“You don’t want to optimize waste.”

According to Morskieft, this is the perfect combination. “You don’t want to robotize waste. What am I saying: you can’t easily robotize a non-Lean process at all. As an RPA practitioner it is therefore very important that you can understand processes and that you can make them Lean. After all, Lean processes that you robotize are very rewarding. Workload reduction is one of the most important gains. For example, when I look at the process around applying for VOGs for new employees, the new robot easily saves my colleague an hour or more a day. Every year 4,000 VOGs are applied for, and on busy days there are easily 20 applications being processed. These are now all handled by a robot: the robot logs on to the central government website and applies for the VOG. Not only does this save time, but manually applying for a VOG is not exactly challenging work. My colleague can use the time saved by the robot for other work. Activities that she enjoys more. Incidentally, we are not only trying to eliminate repetitive work by robot, but are also inventing new products. For example, we have developed a robot that reads GGD scores, allowing us to see at a glance the quality of our service.”


Being much more value-added

Morskieft estimates that a total of about sixty percent of the work at Smallsteps’ headquarters can be robotized. “This allows us to do much more work with the same number of employees and thus add much more value to our branches and their site managers. By now, almost ten percent of the processes have been robotized. We certainly need until 2021 to reach sixty percent. Some processes simply need a lot of optimization before they can be robotized. It requires a lot of time and involvement of many different people.” One of those people is payroll administrator Natacha Mazeland. Along with two other colleagues in her department, she signed up for the development program immediately after Bokkinga’s call. “Why? Because this is the future. If you think you’ll still be doing the same job five years from now, you’re wrong. Robotics is going to change a lot of functions. I like to have a grip on that change, and that was also the main reason for my immediate colleagues to get in. Moreover, robotization makes our work much more fun and challenging. By building a robot for repetitive work, we keep time for more interesting things. And if you get to build those robots yourself, that’s extra cool.”


Processes under the microscope

Meanwhile, Mazeland and her immediate colleagues have already put several processes under the microscope. Changing employee schedules, for example. But also the process around declarations. “In our department, we often have a controlling role. Our problem: we controlled everything. Every changed schedule. Every declaration. And so much more. I must honestly say that before Symbol’s Lean training we had never given this much thought. We just did it, it was part of our job. After the training we immediately saw opportunities. Why do we check everything? Is that really necessary? In short: is there no other way? And as Dion also says: it’s a waste to teach a robot a non-Lean process. That’s what we’re betting heavily on.”


Lean thinking: Project Happy Cow

Mazeland and her colleagues even came up with their own name for this: Project Happy Cow. “After all, we are like young cows being allowed to go out to pasture for the first time,” she laughs. “Really, once we were infected with the Lean virus through Symbol, we saw SO many opportunities for improvement. And our ideas just keep coming. We regularly ask ourselves: how big would our pasture be? And couldn’t we have one more pasture?”


Robot for business mileage claims

“Many of the processes we are optimizing we will eventually robotize as well,” Mazeland continued. “Our department’s first robot went live at the end of May – built by two colleagues. The robot checks all business mileage claims. We used to click through all those claims manually. Now the robot does that for us and we only check claims where someone has written more than five hundred kilometers in one day. The exceptions, in other words. You can probably imagine how much time it saves us not having to do this check manually anymore. Besides, how cool is it that we – a team consisting of only ladies – built this robot ourselves? We have a taste for it: more will soon follow!”


RPA + Lean: “So much is still possible.”

Morskieft also continues unabated. “I naturally keep an eye on the processes within Smallsteps and try to spot opportunities. But I also regularly visit other organizations to see how they do things. And I look weekly in UiPath (the software platform used to build the robots and in which Smallsteppers do their RPA training) to see what’s new. For us as a forward-thinking company, there is still so much possible. And the more Lean processes we robotize, the more fun our work becomes and the better we can support our branches.”