Project management in times of pandemic

Business as usual, which means that projects stay unchanged

At the beginning of this year, we started preparations for the project of ERP system implementation at a client’s site in one of the Baltic countries. In February, we still had a few preliminary meetings on the spot, but then suddenly, we had to switch to fully remote working. And you know what? The project is implemented according to the assumed schedule. Could we imagine we’ll finalize the plan without another visit to the client? Yes, but when the epidemic is over, we’d probably prefer to go back to the traditional way of conducting projects. In many cases, it’s just easier, faster, and more enjoyable.

When successive European governments, including the Polish one, began to introduce restrictions on movement and closed borders, we were finalizing preparations for the project. It turned out that this is not a sufficient reason to stop us. As planned, at the end of April, we signed a contract, the operations started and are still going on – all remotely. Of course, a direct meeting with the client’s representatives at the beginning of the year was an advantage. We got to know each other a bit, but most of the activities were carried out remotely.

What is the biggest challenge?

We feel that in some situations, there is a lack of face-to-face contact. By being physically in one room, you can better assess the involvement of the participants. It is also much easier to feel if everything has been understood or if something has remained unclear to someone. Sure, you can also ask questions while working remotely. However, practice shows that not everyone is open enough to ask for something on their own initiative or to ask people to repeat themselves. If we are there, we observe someone’s behavior, not only the face but also body language, and make some assumptions then.

Long training sessions are also a challenge. Many people find it much easier to deal with a conference room than sitting in front of a computer screen in their own home or office. This situation is challenging, especially for the trainer, who has to speak almost all the time without seeing the participants. It slightly improves the situation if all the people taking part in the on-line training have the camera on. However, if the trainer does not see the participants and they do not ask any questions, he does not even know if they are on the other side and listen to him.

An additional difficulty with this project was that all communication with the client was in English. It should be added that it was not the mother tongue of any participant in the project. Moreover, some key users of the system did not speak English, and the project manager on the client side acted as an interpreter. This would be a hindrance even under traditional conditions, but remote working was a real challenge.

Someone might say that remote working and teleconferencing is not a novelty, as they were used as a standard in larger projects. That is true. When we were doing projects in Africa or Australia, it was clear that we could not be there all the time. On the other hand, when there was a need, we were there every two weeks. Specific activities in projects are usually carried out at the client’s premises. Processes are discussed on-site, configurations are developed. Due to the epidemic, it had to be remodeled. When there were problems in the project, you couldn’t just go and explain everything on the spot. You had to deal with it remotely.

And we’ve done it. The project is proceeding according to the plan. Difficulties can be solved, and so far, the issue of returning to the traditional way of working does not arise.

But we are still wondering: will it stay that way or will we go back to what was before? In projects that are carried out far from Poland, the business trips of consultants have always been a significant cost. Now that customers find out that remote working can be effective, they will be willing to reduce travel expenses.

However, for local projects, there will still be room for face-to-face meetings.

Analysis, requirements development, solution design, configuration – these activities are the easiest and quickest to perform at the customer’s premises. When we have a question, it’s easiest to go to someone’s desk and ask them. It takes much less time than making an on-line appointment or even making a phone call – if someone doesn’t answer, we don’t even know why, and you have to make more calls to find out; and if you don’t get someone at your desk, you can ask someone sitting next door right away. Everything can be done remotely, but it usually takes longer and is more complicated. You’re wasting a lot of time with this. A few lost minutes every day for such trivial reasons can translate into severe delays.

To sum up: can we imagine that we close the project without visiting the client? Yes, but still, during the final tests, we would prefer to be on the spot so that we can see if everyone is doing the planned tasks, and if a minor mistake occurs, it can be corrected immediately. After all, project management is all about working with people. So, see you at the project.

Data input and processing activities in an organization can be extremely time-consuming, tedious, monotonous, and costly, mainly if they occur in a manual manner that carries a high risk of errors. With the right OCR systems, not only can such processes be accelerated, but also automated, reducing workforce usage by up to 30%! In the following article, we talk about robotized data transformation and machine learning, as well as the benefits of both solutions.

What are OCR systems, or optical character recognition systems 

The main task of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) systems is to convert text that we are not able to read in digital form (e.g., on photos or graphics) into an entirely digitized structure. This is achieved through a set of techniques or specific software, and such ‘processing’ is usually carried out with the aid of scanned documents (forms, invoices, policies, orders, etc.).

 

The comparison between the classic and intelligent OCR 

 

Classic OCR systems are designed to recognize printed content and save it in digital form. They support structured documents, i.e., in a uniform format. Have you ever wondered why there are “windows” in official letters and why specific fields (e.g., with first and last name) are always in the same place in a given pattern? This layout dramatically facilitates the digitization process, which then does not require advanced solutions. The result here will be, e.g., a word file, which we can edit freely.

 

What can intelligent OCR do?

 

Intelligent OCR systems, on the other hand, have much more extensive capabilities. They allow, among other things:

  • to identify document types based on elements characteristic for them (for an invoice it will be, e.g., a number, as each has one),
  • to recognize written content (especially in capital letters),
  • to create a workflow of documents,
  • to handle semi-structured documents (i.e., having the same set of data, but located in different places, as is the case with invoices or receipts) – in their case, the OCR system’s implementation will bring the most significant benefits,
  • to handle unstructured documents, i.e., consolidated texts, such as, e.g., commission contracts (to find information in them you need words or key characters, as well as creating algorithms and appropriate logic in the OCR system),
  • to handle sets of documents (e.g., applications with a set of attachments),
  • self-learning, i.e., continuous improvement and assimilation of new elements (e.g., invoices from a new supplier) by machines,
  • to integrate with different data sources,
  • to read complex parts (e.g., tables with multiple columns and rows).

iOCR – and much ado about nothing? A few words about the benefits

 

 

iOCR is one system to handle many types of documents. Its primary purpose is to turn them into structured data and minimize the time the operator has to spend on the file. It is unlikely to happen that human involvement will not be needed at all. Always at the stage of iOCR implementation, a person will be required to be responsible for the quality of the data (if the scans have poor resolution, the system may not recognize certain elements). However, Mindbox’s implementation teams always strive to create an almost fully automated process in which human input is negligible. It makes it possible to increase its quality, save time and resources, and scalability and acceleration. Not to mention the simultaneous release of energy of people who can engage in more exciting and creative tasks.

We use software (the so-called robot), which contains an algorithm of conduct, i.e., the same steps that people would do on the applications they work on (more about RPA, i.e., robotization, and its benefits you can read here). This is possible without profound interference with systems that are already running in the company (the “robot” performs its tasks in the background, but you can see them on the computer that is assigned to it).

What else can we get?

 

 

Moreover, it is possible to integrate the data “produced” by the OCR system with the IT systems we use (e.g., CRM or ERP) as well as external systems. We can do this using API, electronic data exchange, or databases (products, etc.). If advanced processes are involved, which use many systems in the company, and we use a robot with implemented algorithms, then after receiving data from the OCR system, it will know exactly what to do with this data. For example, the robot can download data from an XML file and enter into CRM or web applications.

An even more sophisticated solution is to use machine learning models in this whole jigsaw. They allow us to understand, contextualize, and interpret the data provided by the OCR system. Then this data can be transferred to a robot that will process it properly.

In the processes that we automate in Mindbox, we try not to focus on just one of the available solutions, but rather to create a combination of OCR systems and artificial intelligence elements using the appropriate software. The connection possibilities here are endless, with the implementation process developing with the organization and its needs. Individual algorithms and logic can be expanded with new elements, while operators who work with a given application daily can add new rules or providers themselves. We carry out iOCR projects from start to finish and accompany our customers through all the steps, with over 60 automated processes in more than 30 countries. More information you will find in the catalog of business automation projects.

How does it work in practice? A case study

 

 

To better illustrate the scheme, let’s look at the automated recording of purchase invoices. It seems more or less like this:

  • Input data passes through the OCR system, which then processes, structures, and verifies it (e.g., using ABBYY® FlexiCapture® software, which supports all major languages). It extracts the elements we need (e.g., product names on the invoice).
  • The next step is to interpret the data through machine learning and an appropriate program (e.g., APPLICA.AI). It allows the system to know how the data should be entered where to go and what decrees to use. There is no such thing as the unification of names on documents – each supplier can use its naming. However, we managed to create a solution which, based on an extensive database, passed through the machine learning model, made it possible to create a kind of classifier. Thanks to it, we can create an assignment to a given “class” based on different contents. For instance, if the name “Channel lift” appears in the invoice line, our machine learning model will know that it should be recorded, for example, on the account 1281, to the branch 901, the department 850 and the project no. 2. If the name “Channel lift service” appears on the invoice from another provider, which sounds a little different, our algorithm will know from the available database that it should be recorded in the same way. Accommodation service, accommodation, and hotel are the other examples. If these words are found in the learners’ data, in the database that we first fed our machine learning model, the algorithm will be able to interpret these data from the invoice line correctly.
  • The last element of the process is the robot, which integrates everything. Apart from the machine learning algorithm, we can apply any number of business rules, which will help determine how to record the documents (the final step). At this stage, the robot processes one document after another completes the necessary data and selects a person to whom it should send the final file for acceptance or possible corrections. So the user logs in to the application, where his task is only to add a few values and click on a few windows. The full process – from the receipt of the invoice to its final acceptance can only take 2-5 hours, while in the absence of such a system, it takes an average of 5 days!

For those who want to know more

 

 

Mindbox has been on the market for 13 years, employing 10 certified RPA developers and successfully implementing intelligent OCR technology, conducting projects using Artificial Intelligence models, and providing support in the managed services model. Learn from their experience in the Intelligent Process Automation Academy training. You will learn i.a. how to plan and implement the process automation into your organization.

 

If you have any questions about automation or optical character recognition systems or are thinking about introducing such solutions in your company, please contact Magdalena Kwaśny magdalena.kwasny@mindboxgroup.com. We also recommend to contact us via phone on +48 572773537. We will be happy to talk about your needs and provide you with professional advice.

 

 

 

The client: Scania Polska
Tool: UiPath, OCR, Applica.ai
Date: 2019

Scania Polska uses Robotic Process Automation tools to speed up administrative processes, improve their quality, and make better business decisions. Freeing people from routine and time-consuming activities opens up new opportunities for innovation and value creation.

About Scania Polska

Scania is a global organization that sells trucks, buses, and services in over 100 countries. The company’s production facilities are located in Europe, South America, and Asia. Scania also offers financial services in many markets.
Scania Polska is responsible for the sale and rental of new and used vehicles on our market, but also provides a wide range of maintenance, repair, and financial services. The company stands out from the competition with a dense network of workshops located throughout the country – most of them are owned by the company. Scania Poland employs nearly 700 people, half of whom are mechanics.

21 robotized processes

The most interesting automated process: automatic booking of purchase invoices using OCR techniques, machine learning, and an unattended UiPath robot, the so-called Virtual Accountant.
Shortening the processing of the invoice: 2 hours instead of 5 days
Return on investment for the Virtual Accountant project: 11 months with 4 thousand invoices per month

The Challenge: the continuous search for process excellence using innovative technologies

At Scania, we tailor our solutions to your needs. We provide solutions to increase productivity while reducing our environmental impact. Scania’s success as a leader in sustainable transport is based on values. The Scandinavian organizational culture determines that the customer always comes first, every employee should be respected and the strength of the company lies in determination, unity, and teamwork.
The company’s genetic code includes loss elimination, continuous improvement, and innovation. A unique initiative of Future Room is a space for creative thinking, development of passion, and ambition. This is where new ideas sprout and develop, which constitute further steps towards a vision of sustainable transport accessible to all.

Continuous improvement is inscribed in our DNA. For many years we have been trying to optimize processes, both in production, in workshops, but also in the administrative area. Two years ago we heard about RPA which stands for Robotic Process Automation. We have been intrigued by the idea of using robots that replace human work with repetitive activities and that can work on many different systems simultaneously. We have understood that we can achieve significant benefits in process optimization,” says Tomasz Mosoń, Member of the Scania Polska Management Board.

The company decided on a pilot project using a trial license offered by UiPath, an RPA solutions manufacturer. Within three weeks, it turned out that without major investments, significant effects were achieved. This was the beginning of the robotization of processes at Scania Polska. Other projects appeared quickly, which again brought the expected results and even exceeded expectations as they opened up new possibilities.

Slowly, step by step, we invested more and more effort into process optimization using RPA tools. At one point, when we became convinced that this is indeed a tool that makes it possible to replace human work adequately, we decided to use it in the process of recording invoices from suppliers. The robot took over the job in less than 10 months. It soon turned out that we not only save time and money but also have fewer mistakes – says Tomasz Mosoń.

The solution: sequential, comprehensive automation using Robotic Process Automation tools and artificial intelligence

The first robot in Scania Poland was relatively simple. He was responsible for updating the iScala accounting log. At night, thousands of documents flow into the company’s ERP from external systems. Every morning after coming to work, the accountant started an update process lasting even an hour. It was a waste of time for him because he could not use the system at that time. The effect of RPA was immediate and noticeable. By switching on the robot, which at night, after receiving a signal that all documents had been sent, performed a log update, the accountant could immediately, without wasting time, take care of the next tasks.

That is why the next steps on the automation path were quickly taken. Due to technical problems or factual errors, updating the log was sometimes incomplete – not all documents are sent and booked. Always after the update, it was necessary to compare two lists: the documents that should go into the system and those that were actually in the system. After trivial but time-consuming error correction, data were taken from the current log to reports where they were converted according to internal accounting rules. A file was created which was saved on disk and imported into the ERP system, followed by another update of the accounting log.

All these processes were perfectly suited for robotization. What’s more, they were arranged in a sequence: the accountant would update the log, check that nothing was missing, correct errors, recalculate and generate a file that had to be re-imported into iScala. The process has been automated with four successively implemented robots,” explains Piotr Krzysztoporski, Vice President of Mindbox, which is Scania Polska’s ERP and RPA partner.

After automating a dozen or so processes, the company decided to take up a bigger challenge, i.e. automating the process of booking invoices from suppliers. This is one of the key processes from the perspective of the accounting department. Until recently, it was handled by an external outsourcing team of a few people, but today it is the responsibility of the Virtual Accountant.

This was a more complex challenge because automatic document accounting required four independent robots and the solution architecture had to take into account the use of intelligent OCR and artificial intelligence algorithms. Thanks to the use of machine learning, if a robot is not able to apply one of a dozen or so accounting rules to a given invoice, artificial intelligence decides how to classify it based on the content of the invoice,” says Krzysztof Kuczkowski, Senior RPA Consultant at Mindbox.

The processing, structuring, and verification of invoice input data is the responsibility of intelligent OCR technology. Data interpretation is, in turn, the domain of Applica.ai technology. Document accounting in the document circulation system and ERP are supported by UiPath solutions.

The technology pathway

Scania’s robotics are based primarily on UiPath’s RPA technologies. These are proven solutions developed since 2013 and used in many organizations around the world, including PWC, Deloitte, EY, Accenture, a nd IBM. According to Forrester’s report for 2017, UiPath is one of the three market leaders in robotic process automation.

Benefits: robots work faster and without mistakes, allowing people to focus on more valuable tasks

The automation of processes let us have data in our system beforehand, we can react earlier to situations that are happening in our area of activity. This also enables us to pass them on more quickly to our dealers and our parent company, Scania Global,” says Konrad Matulka, Accountant/Coordinator at Scania Polska.

The effect of Virtual Accounting is to shorten the process from receiving an invoice to sending it to final acceptance from 5 days to a few (2 to 5) hours. Preparation of an XML file, which stores all invoice data in a structured form, takes only 90 seconds, and preparation of the booking takes about 45 seconds. The return on the investment was made with 4 thousand invoices per month in less than a year.
This is a real robotic revolution. RPA robots can work 24/7, without supervision or with only minimal human involvement. They speed up processes and make fewer mistakes. Of course, the robots did not replace the accountants. However, they allowed them to deal with matters for which there was no time before. The need to focus on the basic activities makes the time for innovation insufficient. Thanks to RPA, the accountants can take care of improvements in the area of document circulation, vindicating or more advanced reporting using predictive analytics.

Not only do robots help people with this most monotonous and repetitive work, but they also open up new possibilities. This was the case with the night-time automation of a sequence of manual activities related to updating the accounting log. Scania Polska’s data warehouse processing takes place overnight, as it is a major server load due to a large amount of data. Until recently, this meant that the data used by top executives in making decisions was always delayed by one day.

Once the robots started to perform all data preparation activities at night, it was also possible to prepare data for managers on the same night – the conversion of OLAP cubes was triggered the robot at the end of the sequence. Every morning, top management has a complete set of up-to-date information. We managed to achieve an effect that was not initially planned says Piotr Krzysztoporski.

This is a good illustration of the fact that RPA automation is not just about the simple replacement of human labour. Robots open up new possibilities and provide additional benefits. In this case, they shorten the waiting time for data and allow to make better decisions and respond faster to the changing business situation – adds Piotr Krzysztoporski.

The experience gained with the first robots allows Scania Polska employees today to look at other processes not individually, but more comprehensively, as larger process sequences. This approach allows to achieve more. The success of the implementation of the first robots was the reason why RPA started to be thought of not as a project, but as a long-term program. A comprehensive strategy has been developed to approach automation, and accounting is no longer the only business area in which Scania Polska uses robots.

We started the implementation of RPA in the accounting department. There we had the most processes susceptible to automation. Another area was the sales and logistics departments – there are also many processes for the robot. And that’s where we’ve saved the most time, i.e. the robots have replaced the time people spend on entering data or updating systems on a large scale,” says Robert Salamon, IT Manager at Scania Polska.

We also have automated processes in the HR department, in the IT department, and we are still thinking about other areas, in fact, you can find robotically susceptible processes everywhere – adds Robert Salamon.

The robotization project at Scania Polska continues and even begins to expand. There are plans to implement more robots. The results achieved by Scania Polska have attracted interest from other local branches of the global organization. The automation of invoice booking with intelligent OCR was particularly interesting. Recently, a workshop on the robotization of this process was held in Poland. Representatives from 8 Scania companies in Europe took part in it.

Implementing RPA is sometimes simple, sometimes it takes a short time, but sometimes some errors can be corrected on an ongoing basis. Unlike traditional IT systems, the robot requires care after start-up, as is the case with the production line. It is also much easier to automate if we have a good knowledge of the process in which robots replace human work and when we have good documentation. Of course, what counts are committed people and an experienced technological partner – meeting these conditions we can expect achieving success – adds Tomasz Mosoń.

Robert Mosoń
Financial Director, Member of the Board at Scania Polska
https://www.linkedin.com/in/moson/

Piotr Krzysztoporski
ERP & Intelligent Process Automation Practice Director at Mindbox
https://www.linkedin.com/in/piotr-krzysztoporski/

Krzysztof Kuczkowski
Senior RPA developer, Team leader at Mindbox
https://www.linkedin.com/in/krzysztof-kuczkowski/

Robert Salamon
IT Manager at Scania Polska
https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-salamon-98a8202/

 

If you want to be up-to-date, use your employees’ full potential, save some time and money, make room for creativity and development or simply improve the speed and quality of your processes, it might be a good idea to have a closer look at automation. It may even be a better idea if your employees work overtime and your company is still behind everything.

Here is what you need to know at the beginning. From this article, you will learn:

  • what Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is,
  • what benefits it offers,
  • how to decide what processes can be automated,
  • how we do it here at Mindbox.

What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and why it is not as black as it is sometimes painted?

 

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is not directly related to industrial or mechanical robots (so forget about the Terminator in this context). It neither applies for everything (in some cases simple digitization does the trick) nor can guess your thoughts. It is not a programming language, either.

By definition, RPA simply refers to a piece of software (sometimes called a “bot”), which imitates the actions of an operator. It can operate at the UI (User Interface) level and use, for example, APIs or databases. Google Assistant is one of its most common examples. There is also a difference between RPA and IPA (Intelligent Process Automation), the latter referring to robots with cognitive features, using more complex algorithms (for example, intelligent Optical Character Recognition, Artificial Intelligence, or machine learning).

 

Why is all of that relevant?

 

Well, even though the fourth industrial revolution is a fact, and it has started a new chapter in human and business development, enabled by extraordinary advances, some still believe that too much technology can not only ruin the atmosphere in an office but even deprive people of employment.

Robotization is not reserved for geeks and can improve the process while saving much time. In our experience, with proper cultural adaptation and cooperation between stakeholders and IT departments, employees were more than happy to get rid of dull, repetitive tasks and let their creativity flow.

OK, so RPA frees up time for creativity and development. Is that it?

 

Not in the slightest! There are many other benefits, including:

  • reducing process costs,
  • increasing the quality of processes and human error prevention,
  • accelerating processes,
  • scaling processes.

The last point is especially worth mentioning, as, from a robot’s perspective, it does not matter whether it processes 100 or 1000 transactions. A “regular” employee would mind that!

A piece of software can also easily access specific data upon request. For instance, if you run an insurance company, your bots can prepare reports based on information and pictures of car accidents sent by customers. It is that simple.

All right, let’s say I am not a geek. How do I decide if a process is a right candidate for automation?

 

Theoretically, processes that can be automated in each company include HR services, finance and accounting, supply chain, and IT services. In practice, each process requires a careful assessment in terms of robotization. It is best to start with a variety of options for further selection or elimination. On this step, you can use a catalog of business process automation projects to search for solutions by industry, field, or complexity. At Mindbox, we will be more than happy to assist you with that, so do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions concerning RPA. However, here is a little guide:

  • check for repetitiveness – you want to choose highly frequent, manual processes,
  • check for clear processing instructions – you need standardized and predictive rules (the more you know the process, the better),
  • check for high transaction volume (this goes for frequency as well),
  • check for maturity and stability (look out for well-documented and predictable processes),
  • avoid exceptions (choose activities with a low number of variations).

It is also a good idea to use this order while implementing automation:

  1. firstly, robotize the processes which offer high benefits and have a low level of complexity (the so-called quick wins),
  2. secondly, robotize the processes which offer low benefits and have a low level of complexity at the same time (the so-called low hanging fruits),
  3. thirdly, robotize the processes which provide high gains, but have a high level of complexity (the so-called must-do improvements),
  4. finally, robotize the processes which provide low benefits compared with the level of complexity (the so-called long-term enhancements).

In a nutshell, the entire process of choosing candidates for automation should include these steps:

  • analyze your processes,
  • focus on the processes which are repetitive, well-parameterized and can be described as rules,
  • focus on the processes which can be accelerated or improved (also in terms of quality) thanks to automation,
  • specify how many transactions you complete in a day, a week or a month,
  • think about other IT systems you use which are not integrated,
  • optimize the process if necessary,
  • automate!

We have also developed a free questionnaire, including recommendations or advice against robotization based on your answers. Let us know if you need it.

Remember that a successful robotization starts with preparing your enterprise for automation. Only then can a pilot (or the so-called Proof of Concept) be developed and introduced. What is more, you should not even think about the next steps (strategy preparation and implementation) without assessing the benefits first. Mindbox can walk you through the entire process to make sure all goes as planned, and nothing fails.

It is all very interesting, but I want details and numbers.

 

Sure thing. We have a lot of happy stories to share. Let us use our adventure with Scania Polska as a case study. Our virtual accountant project which was implemented in the company included:

  • processing, structuring and verifying data (using ABBYY® FlexiCapture® software),
  • data interpretation (using Applica.AI software),
  • invoice accounting (using UiPath software).

As for the benefits achieved,

the return on an investment after 11 months was 4000 invoices per month,

the full process from receipt of the invoice to sending it to final acceptance now takes from 2 to 5 hours (the average time before implementation was five days (!),

the XML file preparation takes 90 seconds,

the preparation of posting lines takes 45 seconds.

 

Curious? Want to know more? Reach us at this contact form.

Are you interested in starting your process automation journey? Save the date and join robotic training conducted by our experts. You will learn how to plan and implement process automation projects.