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How Signify accelerated automation projects as pandemic challenges mounted

Dutch lighting manufacturer used robotic process automation technology to help it address Covid-19-inflicted disruption

Dutch lighting manufacturer Signify faced major business challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic when staff were unable to work from its offices. Like many businesses, however, it used adversity to accelerate digital plans.

It achieved this by adopting robotic process automation (RPA) software, starting with its supply chain function, which was hit particularly hard by pandemic disruption. In addition to human resource restrictions, the department experienced delays in component supplies.

The company, known as Philips Lighting from 1891 until 2016, began its RPA journey in 2018, when the IT department began working with RPA supplier UIPath. Signify accelerated projects during the pandemic when the value of RPA became clear.

The first department to put an RPA project in place was the supply chain function, following which the technology was gradually adopted across the company. Signify now has 30 RPA bots that save it 25,000 work hours a year, in departments including HR, marketing and finance.

Signify’s IT department runs a centralised RPA centre of excellence, which provides the technology tools, infrastructure and licences to other centres of excellence in different business divisions.

“These decentralised centres of excellence are looking for use cases and processes to automate themselves,” says Viktor Schner, RPA centre of excellence lead for the supply chain function. “Every decentralised department is driving their own RPA projects using the same infrastructure.”

Urgent action

Schner says Covid-19 triggered more urgent action on RPA in the supply chain department. “We saw a lot of disruption in the supply chain function, with a component crisis. Covid-19 hit us very hard, with a lack of availability of containers, for example, along with many other disruptions.”

Signify wasn’t alone. “Covid pushed many companies to increase or accelerate their digital transformations,” says Schner. “Businesses were not able to work as they had done before, people couldn’t go to the office or meet, so there was a need to digitise from many angles.”

“RPA bots taking on highly repetitive tasks was seen as a way to save time and allow employees to focus on customers”
Viktor Schner, Signify

But slowing global economic activity triggered by the pandemic did not mean a reduced workload for staff. “The workload of our employees at the operational front increased because of a lot of ad hoc work, but the number of employees did not increase, so RPA bots taking on highly repetitive tasks was seen as a way to save time and allow employees to focus on customers.”

The supply chain operation currently has eight processes carried out by bots, saving over 4,000 hours a year.

The first process to be automated addressed a problem Signify was experiencing with order confirmations. “Customers were placing orders and not receiving confirmation, which was damaging customer satisfaction. We investigated the cause and discovered our purchase orders were also not being confirmed, which was connected,” says Schner.

“We found we were receiving confirmations of purchase orders from suppliers, but we just didn’t have the resources to put them in the system. If you don’t have confirmation in your ERP [enterprise resource planning] system, then the sales order does not get confirmed either,” he adds.

“The first software robot we deployed took over the job of putting confirmations from suppliers into our SAP [system],” says Schner.

Since starting in one region, the project has been expanded to others, saving more than 2,800 hours a year in the supply chain function. But there is potential to save over 5,000 hours a year, according to Schner.

There have been seven further projects in the supply chain department, but this is the biggest project in terms of time savings. “When these projects are scaled and spread around the world, we could be looking at 15,000 hours of savings a year, just in the supply chain function,” he adds. 

Staff involvement

Other departments have had their own successes. The HR and finance departments, for example, have made major time savings in onboarding staff and paying invoices.

There have been no staff cuts because of the introduction of RPA, and this was never in Signify’s plan, now or for the future, according to Schner. “This was not the goal of our RPA journey. The workload is increasing a lot, especially in the supply chain, but the aim is to help staff focus on value-add services for customers.”

In fact, the model adopted by Signify for its RPA strategy was designed to get staff buy-in. “The idea of the decentralised centres of excellence is to get the staff involved as much as possible because they are dealing with the processes on a daily basis,” he says.

Staff input is essential to get RPA off the ground, according to Schner, because it starts with the automation of tasks that only the staff who use them understand, and are therefore best placed to spot inefficiencies.

Schner says task automation is a good way to start an automation project, with employees bringing up ideas, but when processes are automated rather than tasks, it needs to be looked at from a higher level, taking feedback from a wider group of people.

Despite being proud of the huge time savings it has already made, Schner says there are no particular targets. “Target setting is not always a good thing because they are not always realistic.” But he adds that the company is now working with UIPath to identify a realistic target for RPA.

Signify is also investigating how it can use predictive technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning in its automation projects.

Growing awareness

Reflecting on being tasked with leading the RPA strategy for a Signify business unit, Schner says he was offered the job because he had shown interest in automation and had been having discussions about problems people were having. “I would describe myself as a strong analytical person,” he says. “The most important part is translating the business problem into the IT.”

The first challenge he faced was convincing people about the benefits of RPA. “The first six months was just raising awareness through things like podcasts showing the benefits, as well as examples,” he says. “We spent a long time raising awareness, and we are still doing it.”

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