The four stages of automation – Part I

One of the core concepts of software development and IT in general is “automation”, the “creation and application of technologies to produce and deliver goods and services with minimal human intervention” (definition from techopedia).

The problem is that “minimal human intervention” is often misunderstood as “no human intervention”, which is the most laborious and expensive stage of automation that might not have the most economic return on investment. It might be more efficient to have some degree of intervention left while investing only a fraction of the automation work and duration.

In order to decide “how much” automation is the most profitable for the foreseeable future, I’ve established a model with four stages of automation that I can quickly check against the circumstances. In this blog post, I describe the first two stages and give some ideas how to implement them.

Stage 1: Documentation

The first step to automation is to just describe the process in a manner that can be repeated. The documentation itself does nothing, but it enables repetition and scalability, two fundamental aspects of automation.

Think about baking a pie. If you just mix some ingredients and put it in the oven for an arbitrary amount of time, you might produce the most delicious pie ever, but you cannot do it again if you don’t remember all details and, even more tragic, nobody else can bake your pie. In order to give others the secret to your special pie, you have to give them the recipe – the documentation of its production process. Once the recipe is written down (and published), it can be read by many bakers in parallel and enables all of them to recreate your invention (to some degree at least, there are probably still some tricks and secrets left out of the recipe).

While the pie baking process still needs human intervention (the bakers that read the recipe and transform it into a series of actions), it is automated in the sense that it can be repeated with roughly the same result and these repetitions, given enough bakers and ovens, can be performed in parallel.

The economic evaluation of documentation shows that it is really easy to create, fast to change and, given some quality of content, nearly universally understood. If you don’t want to invest a lot of time and money, documenting your processes is the first and most important step towards automation. For a lot of your processes, it will also be the last possible stage of automation, at least until artificial intelligence learns your tricks and interpretations.

Documenting your processes is (no surprises here) the foundation of most quality assurance standards. But it is surprisingly hard to start with. This is not a matter of tools – pen and paper will do in the beginning. It is a shift in your mindset. The goal is no longer to bake a pie. It is to write a recipe while you bake the pie as a reference piece for it. If you want to start documenting your processes, here are three tips that might help you:

  • Choose a digital tool that doesn’t obstruct you. It should be digital because this facilitates distribution and collaboration. It should not hinder you because every time you need to think about the tool, you lose the focus on your process. I’m using a Wiki that lets me type the things I want to say without interference. In my case, that’s Confluence, but Obsidian or other tools are just as good.
  • Try to adopt a narrative structure to describe your processes. Think about the established structure of a baking recipe. For example, there is an ingredients list separate from the preparation instructions. If you find a structure that works for you, repeat and evolve it. It helps you and your readers to stay on track and don’t scatter the information all over the place. In my case, the structure consists of four paragraphs:
    1. Event/Trigger – The circumstance(s) that should be present at the beginning of the process
    2. Actions/Steps – The things you have to do, described in the necessary details for the target audience. This is often the paragraph with the most content.
    3. Result – Description of the circumstance(s) that should be present once you’ve done all steps. In recipes, this is often a photo of the meal/pastry. For first-time performers, this description is important to be able to declare success.
    4. Report – Who needs to be informed? This paragraph is often missing in descriptions, but crucial for collaboration. If nobody knows there is a fresh and delicious pie in the kitchen, it will not be eaten. Ok, that’s a bad example: Pies in the oven announce themselves with their smell. Digital products often have no smell – inform your peers!
  • Iterate over your documentation any chance you get. It is easy to bake your signature pie from memory. But is the recipe still accurate? Are there details that are important, but missing from the description? Your digital tool probably allows immediate modification of your documentation and maybe even informs interested readers about your update. Unchanged documentation is dead documentation. In my case, I always open my process description on a secondary monitor whenever I perform them. Sometimes, I invite others to perform the process for me to review the accuracy and fidelity of the documentation.

If you can open the process description of many of your routine tasks, you have reached the first stage of automation for your work. Of course, there will be lots of things you do that are not “routine” – yet. With good documentation, you can even think about delegation – the art of maximizing the amount of work done by others – without sacrificing essential quality.

In later stages, the delegation target (the “others”) will be machines.

Stage 2: Recurring reminders

If you’ve documented a process with a structure similar to mine, you specified a trigger or event that requires the process to be performed. Perhaps its the first day of the month and you need to update your timesheet or send out the appointment overview for the next weeks. Maybe your office plants silently thirst for some water. Whatever it is, if your process is recurrent, you might think about recurring reminders.

This will not automate the performance of the process, but unburden you of thinking about the triggering event. The machines will now remind you about certain tasks. This can be a simple series of reminders in your schedular app or, like in my case, the automated creation of issues (or todo items, tickets) in your work planning application.

For example, once every few weeks, a friendly machine creates an issue for me to write a blog entry on this blog. It does the same for my colleagues and even sets a “due date” (The due date for this post is today). With this simple construct, some discipline and coordination, we’ve managed to write one blog post every week for more than ten years now.

The machine that creates the issues doesn’t check them. It doesn’t supervise their progress and isn’t offended if we “won’t fix” issues because we are on holiday or the plants are still wet. It will just create the next issue according to the rhythm. It is our duty as humans to check if that rhythm fits or if it should be sped up or slowed down.

If you want to employ really elaborate triggers for your reminders, a platform like “If this then that (IFTTT)” might be the right choice. Just keep in mind that with complexity, there often comes rigidity, which isn’t always desired.

By automating the aspect of reminding us about the routine tasks, we can concentrate on doing them. We don’t forget to write blog posts or to water the plants because the machine doesn’t forget. Another improvement is that this clearly distinguishes between routine (has a recurring reminder) and anomaly. If the special one-time task occurs again, we give it a recurring reminder and adopt it as a new routine task. If a reminder about a routine task is “won’t fixed” often enough without any inclination that it will be required again, we delete the reminder.

Conclusion for part I

If you combine automated recurring reminders with structured documentation, you already gain a lot of advantages and can free your mind from the mundane details and intervals of your routine tasks. You haven’t automated any aspect of your real work yet, which means that these two stages can be applied to most if not all workplaces.

In the next part of this series, we will look at the two stages that become integrated with your actual work. Stay tuned!

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