John Lewis Partnership sells its automation to business

The John Lewis Partnership will expand its use of automation technology as its early projects bear fruit

Retail group The John Lewis Partnership has automated business processes to help it increase productivity and cut costs, in a sector where online players are increasing the competitive tension.

The company, which includes retail brands John Lewis and Waitrose, implemented robotic process automation (RPA) technology from Blue Prism to automate repetitive processes previously carried out by people. It has also created a centre of excellence with a team of developers.

The retail group has already automated 40 business processes using 60 software robots, known as digital workers. These processes are in different departments including finance, human resources (HR) and supply chain.

Around £5m in costs have been saved so far, and has freed up staff to do more value-add and rewarding work, said Chris Garrett, automation programme lead at John Lewis Partnership.

She said automation, and more specifically RPA, emerged after the business looked at ways to increase productivity. “We started our automation journey from a productivity angle and looked across the company to see where we could be more productive. Out of this came the suggestion to use RPA,” she added.

At the time, in 2017, RPA was an upcoming technology with business use cases in the public domain. “It was very much the talk of the [retail] industry with a lot of people thinking about it, but not that many progressing,” said Garrett.

John Lewis Partnership engaged with Deloitte to carry out RPA experiments in areas of HR, buying and merchandising, and online retail. “These early experiments showed there was an appetite for RPA and that we could derive a lot of benefits,” said Garrett.

The first project was in the HR department. The organisation has lots of requests for references from employees, which is a highly manual process to complete, with no value-add. The company was able to use RPA to link together legacy systems in its HR department, which would normally be very complex and costly.

“Rather than writing costly integration, the robots are mimicking what the human does. The robot will open the system and navigate through the menus, exactly the same way a human does,” said Garrett.

The first project was a vital part of the journey because it was the point when the technology was introduced to the business beyond its conceptual acceptance by senior management.

“As a company there was really good buy-in at a senior level, but when you go down to the level of automating certain processes there needs to be more change activity,” said Garrett.

Changing the automation conversation

After the initial project, the awareness and understanding of what RPA offers increased in the business, said Garrett.

Another way of getting the wider workforce to become engaged with the RPA programme was to give the robots names, which changed conversations. For example, what was once “there is an IT outage” is now “Hetti is sick”.

The company has since automated processes around fraud detection. The company previously had people doing fraud checks, but through RPA this has become more consistent.

Garrett said there has been further investment in the automation team and its members. “We now have a lot of robots so we have to build an operational team for them rather than just a development team,” she said.

There are 12 people in the current automation team, which has now been moved from within a productivity programme to the IT department.

“It is very much an IT capability that we can apply to anything. When departments want to automate, IT has a standardised tool set,” said Garrett.

The company is currently looking at automation in its contact centre operation as well as in buying and merchandising.

“We have hit a lot of the low-hanging fruit with standard RPA, and we are looking at more intelligent cognitive automation,” said Garrett, which will include linking RPA to chatbots.

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