The Royal Mail Group, a postal service company has been engaged in an ongoing effort to address the realities of declining mail volume and growing competition. Efficiency drives have been a big part of this effort, of course, but the organization’s finance leaders recognize that their function must also deliver value to the business.
From efficiency to effectiveness. That is the path of the finance transformation effort that Mike Prince has been leading at Royal Mail Group since 2014. Previously, the publicly held postal services group had undertaken several transformations and reorganizations, all of them aimed at rationalizing headcount and learning to do more with less.
Mike responded to the challenge by launching an efficiency drive focused on process improvement and headcount reductions in business planning, strategic planning and forecasting—“places where the world has moved on and we hadn’t,” as he puts it. Repositioning the role of business partners has entailed clearing routine work from their inboxes and doing it more efficiently elsewhere, so that the partners have more time to focus on adding value. In similar fashion, Royal Mail has automated many of the finance function’s routine, repetitive transactional processes so that people can do higher-value work.
The transformation team first tested Robotic Process Automation (RPA) with a pilot program in the accounts receivable unit. They had expected resistance to robotics from their unionized workforce, thinking that people would be hostile to an innovation that might automate their jobs out of existence. To their surprise, they found that people eagerly adapted to the change. It helped that the transformation team humanized their robot by naming it Marvin. The accounts receivable team “started to say, ‘Oh, Marvin can do that mundane piece of work.’ The technology became a person, and the people wanted to give that person all the work they didn’t want to do.”
Robotics opens up an avenue toward process improvement, because unlike humans, “the robot won’t accept things out of tolerance,” he says. “It’s a brilliant way to improve process.” Robotics also enables Royal Mail to sidestep the question of offshoring some of its work—a thorny issue for such a heavily unionized organization. “I suspect this will be a way for organizations to bring things back onshore, actually,” Mike says.
Success of the robotics pilot has spread to other parts of the organization, including HR, IT, the customer experience team, and the digital strategy team, have expressed interest in what robotics can do for them. “It’s a nice problem to have,” Mike says. “You can do this on a bottom-up basis and create an ecosystem”—and a more efficient and effective business.
“Robotics opens up an avenue toward process improvement, because unlike humans, the robot won’t accept things out of tolerance. It’s a brilliant way to improve process.”