In a recent announcement, General Mills, one of the world’s largest food companies, shared that it is adding automation features to its warehouses in four locations to further streamline its operations and supply chains. Amidst a rapidly changing environment, the move to automate features in their warehouses also serves as a way to ensure the company’s logistics network remains optimized.

General Mills is just one of many companies globally that have embarked on a digital transformation or automation journey. In Singapore, a study by Workato found that over 83 percent of businesses in the country are already adopting at least one digital automation solution, with eight in 10 of those who have not automated intending to start this year.

However, while many have jumped on the automation bandwagon, there is often a struggle with where to start. Typically, businesses jump into solution mode without evaluating the people, processes, or ability to manage the change, making it difficult to establish the first steps to take when working through automation and digital transformation.

Identifying some key guiding principles can help make an automation project less daunting.

1. Establish a cross-functional team and be inclusive

Many organizations overlook the diversity of the team required to manage, maintain, and provide valuable insights into the project. Naturally, many projects are led by a traditional procurement department with a black-and-white mentality. Critical opinions are locked out and layers of bureaucracy are installed, preventing critical challenges, progression, and momentum from being created within the project.

A cross-functional team is critical to success in any transformation project, and this team needs to prioritize the automation and transformation project highly over their day jobs in order to succeed.

Secondly, where skillsets such as engineering departments are non-existent, or in some cases, they exist but large-scale automation projects are often unfamiliar ground, it’s important to engage specialists.

In the same vein, at Gartner’s recent Supply Chain Symposium, Caroline Chumakov, Director Analyst of Gartner’s Supply Chain Practice spoke of the need for Chief Supply Chain Officers (CSCOs) to unlock more skills and flexibility by breaking down projects into component tasks and seeking skills needed for those tasks across the entire organization.

2. Don’t overlook the here and now

Without pointing out the obvious – what, how, and when to automate largely depends on where the business is now and where it wants to be in the future. Businesses need to ask themselves: “How do l get from A to B?”

When organizations first embark on their automation journey, there is the assumption that it’s all about long lead times and multi-million-dollar investments. However, if due diligence is carried out correctly and thoroughly, opportunities for more tactical initiatives open up.

Take the process of selecting an automation vendor or solution. How can an organization assess the options without knowing where they are, and where they need to be and then assessing the costs, challenges, and risks associated with any decision-making? However, time and time again, automation emerges as the go-to answer without knowing the question.

Doing a thorough investigation of where an operation is right now can sometimes lead to a conclusion that is wildly different from any preconceptions about the course of action that needs to be taken.

Sometimes an incremental change in a current warehouse will result in the outcome required to optimize an operation, as opposed to large-scale transformation.

If an organization plows ahead blindly with its transformation plans and engages directly with automation vendors, it can very quickly find itself committing to a solution that may not drive the best outcome – and at a significant cost.

What an organization needs to do instead is assess all the investment options – both tactical and strategic.

An initial investment in an operational diagnostic can potentially save hundreds of thousands in operational costs through tactical operational improvements, and millions in preventative capital investments. Remember, automation is not always the answer.

3. Pull the trigger with a high degree of certainty, not absolute certainty

Every operation will gradually change over time and unintentionally, it can become extremely inefficient and unpredictable and may challenge the long-term suitability of automation.

Using data to analyze where this might happen could lead to minor or major adjustments in the direction; however, far too often the “what if” moments will paralyze a project.

As many will appreciate, the operation will always be fluid regardless if the site is manual, or automated. Throughout the process of designing, vendors will test the sensitivity of the design and what we can say with certainty is that this will never be correct. The operation will change, and far too often, project teams aim for perfection or increase contingency plans that kill the business case.

We appreciate that systems can be a wonderful mechanical maze of conveyors; however, they are not spaceships – they can be modified, manipulated, and adapted in the future.

Use data to inform directionally which is the best solution for the organization, and make sure that the due diligence is carried out independently, objectively, and accurately before executing in that direction.

Setting up for success

Automation is a game-changer for the supply chain industry. Especially in this day and age where consumers have higher expectations of when their goods arrive, businesses need to incorporate automation into their supply chain strategies to stay ahead of the curve.

However, as identified above, it is important that businesses make key considerations and preparations before progressing with an automation project. Only with careful and strategic evaluation and implementation of automation solutions can businesses reap substantial benefits and enhance their overall supply chain operations.

Greg O’ Shea is Country Manager, Malaysia & Singapore, TMX Global.

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