United Utilities is a year into its robotic process automation (RPA) journey, which has seen the creation of a dedicated team to help the company filter the technology through the entire business.
The water company, which serves north-west England, embarked on its RPA journey in November 2017 after selecting Blue Prism as its software supplier. It has so far automated 20 processes through RPA, with another 12 in development.
According to Genevieve Wallace Dean, head of robots at United Utilities, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Wallace Dean, who has been with the organisation for four years, took on the role of establishing a robotic process automation capability and went on to establish a digital automation team. The team of 10 focuses on RPA and app development.
It is part of the IT department, which is staffed by about 250 of United Utilities’ 5,000-strong workforce.
The digital automation operation led by Wallace Dean, which resembles a DevOps team, spent time building an RPA delivery infrastructure, including training robots and people, and defining where the technology could be most beneficial.
Wallace Dean says the company has an operational strategy geared towards system thinking, so it can understand how changes affect the business, as well as complementary digital plans.
“Part of this was to ensure we were not a collection of independent components, but a single business with an end-to-end system to deliver to our customers. Technology and digitisation are a key part of that,” she adds.
RPA is one of the foundation technologies of this strategy.
Robots save time and boost accuracy
By January 2018, the company had automated its first process through Blue Prism RPA.
This was the process of sending text messages to customers when an engineer is due to visit them. “The robots are going into our applications and seeing who has an appointment and sending a text message out,” says Wallace Dean.
With about 200 messages sent out per day, it previously took eight people, covering different areas, to work the process manually. Now, one robot spends 30 minutes a day on this process. The company estimates it has saved 2,000 hours in a year through this project alone.
“While time savings are easy to measure, the other benefits are increased accuracy and logging, meaning we are certain the text messages have been sent, when they were sent, and who to,” says Wallace Dean.
“The benefits are not just time savings, but making the process robust. We know the robots aren’t going to go on holiday or be off sick.”
Genevieve Wallace Dean, United Utilities
Despite the reduction in manual processes, no cuts have been made to the workforce. “It has enabled the agents who would have been sending those texts to spend more time engaging with the customers,” says Wallace Dean. “Cutting the workforce has never been an objective of RPA. If there is a task that doesn’t need intelligence and business knowledge, automation is applied to it.”
Automation has also been applied to the process where customers request to have their water usage metered.
Customers on an unmetered tariff can apply for a free water meter. United Utilities calculates whether they will be better off with a meter according to the size of the house and the number of occupants. This is now automated through RPA.
This is an example of a process that has spikes in demand which make it difficult to employ the right number of human resources. “Robots accept the applications, do the calculations and then progress the applications,” says Wallace Dean. “We put more robots on the job when we get spikes in demand, rather than the business being impacted by having to use human resources.”
Robots detect and resolve faults
Beyond using robots to make customer services and processing more efficient, United Utilities is also applying the technology to fault detection and resolution.
With Water Companies eager to stop water leakage, identifying problems early is essential.
“Robots can be applied almost anywhere, and we are looking at getting them to do more predictive work and monitoring more consistently, rather than scheduled processes, and we are currently working on a proof of concept,” says Wallace Dean.
If this proves worthwhile, United Utilities will increase the number of robots it has. One robot gives 24-hour capacity.
The company started with 10 robots, which is enough for now, according to Wallace Dean. But she predicts greater robot capacity will be required as it moves more into the monitoring space, where things are checked as often as every 30 seconds.
RPA makes reporting of operational data more efficient
Another area where significant efficiencies have been gained through RPA is in reporting operational data. The reporting of operational data was previously carried out by eight people, contributing to a report that is produced four times a day. This took 720 minutes of manual effort each day. It is now automated through RPA and takes just 32 minutes a day.
The value of this was displayed during a period of dry weather in the summer of 2018. The organisation had to monitor and report on operations more often and increased the number of reports to nine per day. RPA enabled it to do this without having to bring in more people.
Identifying further RPA applications
Wallace Dean says the central team is important to support the enterprise-wide strategy, but adds that people in the business units are ideally placed to help take RPA deeper.
She says there has been a positive reaction by staff to their new digital colleagues.
“We have had to go through a learning curve, as it is something new that we have introduced, but once the individual teams have seen the processes go live they understand it,” says Wallace Dean.
“This has been key for me and my team because we want to go out and build relationships within the business because these are the people who can identify processes to be automated,” she adds. “Finding good opportunities for automation is the biggest challenge.”
Mature, high-volume and repetitive processes are typically the best suited to automation, according to Wallace Dean.
“It is up to people in the business to put their hands up and say, ‘I think I have something here’,” she says. “It is all about business engagement. While we implement RPA for processes in certain departments, they usually come up with other ideas.”
Blue Prism was United Utilities’ supplier of choice because the technology was more than just drag and drop, offering enterprise automation. It was also a benefit that Blue Prism is headquartered in north-west England.