We all know processes are important.
Having a clear set of processes or procedures for repetitive or recurring tasks is a crucial way to make sure your output is the best it can be every time.
Those set game plans for how to approach a task can also help you to improve the way you approach those tasks.
Part of that improvement process can be automating elements of the flow to boost reliability and efficiency.
The world of IT provides us with a clear example of the vast efficiency benefits which can be achieved through carefully mapping tasks and seeking to improve the process which ties them together.
One such example is runbook automation, and in this Process Street article we’re going to look at:
- What is runbook automation?
- How do companies use runbook automation?
- What can we learn from runbook automation to improve other teams?
- How Process Street can help you automate set procedures
What is runbook automation?
A runbook is documented procedure that is carried out regularly to maintain performance within computer systems. Runbook automation is a system whereby this procedure is able to be completed without manual input, therefore increasing efficiency and reliability.
Kevin Jackson, Technical Solutions Consultant at InterMapper, describes the use and benefit of runbook automation to HelpSystems as:
The idea of run book automation can be both an advantageous and challenging practice for any environment. Inherently, its primary benefit is to reduce some of the operational costs associated with day-to-day tasks and business processes. With automation, we could offload some of these daily tasks, reduce risk associated with human intervention, and hopefully improve upon the quality of service we were providing.
This is all nice and simple; it makes sense.
Having a set process to complete a task helps improve the consistency of that task, and allows you to optimize that process to further improve the output of that task.
The challenge is recognizing what can be automated and how it can be automated. Fortunately, for runbooks most things can be automated without too much difficulty as we’re describing a computer system.
Any system though requires human input at certain stages, or might be reliant on external variables which are harder to account for in the original process mapping.
Mike Stegeman, Senior Data Access Consultant at SEQUEL, overviews neatly the development of runbook automation and the positives it brought, but outlines what the initial challenges were when it first started coming into play:
At businesses, governments, and universities, manual run books were a step toward ensuring that each step in a computing process was completed. Automated run books gave operators a way to go through multiple ‘normal’ steps by using one process. This was a huge step: daily batch jobs could be stacked up one after the other and placed into a new, single-step process. It left only monitoring to be done by an operator. When everything went well, the new process was great.
But soon, operators realized that finding which step failed or, more importantly, where to restart the process, was difficult. What steps did complete? What step failed? Where should the process be restarted to ensure accurate processing?
Stegeman here highlights the problems of scheduling and reporting when using a highly automated system.
Various processes may be running concurrently or be reliant on different processes to have completed or reached a certain stage in order for the original process to run properly.
He points to modern automation tools and technologies as a way to more easily manage and control this; putting in stops and breaks and being able to monitor progress.
In a way, this is what Process Street does for business processes: with the use of stop tasks, required fields, conditional logic, and approvals through task assignments, Process Street provides a place to centralize the monitoring and scheduling of different areas of a process – much like IBM’s enterprise Runbook Automation system might do for large computer networks.
How do companies use runbook automation?
According to the paper Assessment method of operational procedure for runbook automation by T. Yanase, M. Asaoka, S. Onodera, and I. Namba published in the 2015 IFIP/IEEE International Symposium on Integrated Network Management (IM), the number of companies operating runbook automation has soared.
They describe the reason as:
The large demand for cost reduction of system operation has made the shift to runbook automation essential, because runbook enables both the operational cost to be reduced and operational quality to be improved.
We can see this trend clearly in the industry, so how is it actually being put in place?
Chris Lopez of NetBrain outlines how his team utilizes runbook automation. He starts off not by simply outlining the problem in business terms, but in practical operational terms; if you don’t have clearly documented processes, you don’t know what’s going on nor how to fix it.
Something we can likely all empathize with.
One solution to this problem is to build effective runbooks and then begin to assess the automation potential for the different processes and to start implementing them.
This means you have procedures, but ones which are clearly actionable.
Lopez outlines – and screenshots – one of the runbooks he uses on the NetBrain system in the image below.
The above runbook is showing a somewhat typical use case of trying to diagnose a problem on a computer network – a technical task which requires specialized knowledge of IT, perhaps a network administrator.
But the procedure is still clear; partly in the list of automated steps on the left hand side, and partly through the documented user instructions seen on the right.
The process user has tasks which involve them in the process but the grunt work is now being done by the machine. This gives you an optimized method for running these diagnostics while also providing clear instructions for a new hire, or someone generally new to the system.
As Lopez states:
Not only does it make my job easier, but having this process defined enables other people to understand the thought process that went into creating the runbook, allowing this knowledge to be freely and easily shared with anyone who needs to use it.
This is your classic runbook which you’ll find top IT departments utilizing their own variants of across the industry.
What can we learn from runbook automation to improve other teams?
It isn’t just IT that can benefit from automating set procedures and increasing efficiency through the execution of these defined paths.
Kevin Jackson speculates that runbook automation will find itself shifting out from merely IT usage and into the typical day to day work of far larger numbers of people:
I believe that, as the automation tools continue to improve, you will start to see a steady flow of regular people using these tools in their daily lives, in addition to an increasing amount of IT professionals relying on these tools. Although the promise of automation solutions is to “set it and forget it,” technology can still play awful jokes on us, so we can’t take our eyes off the processes just yet.
With the increase of automation ready technologies, this future-gazing has very quickly become reality.
From your garage door opening automatically as you arrive home in your car thanks to the new iOS Shortcuts or IFTTT integrations, to manual data entry in business processes being automated via Zapier, this world of automated flows is upon us.
Platforms like Process Street have automation elements built into them too, allowing you to accurately map these automation paths and carry them out with conditional logic – meaning the flows can be responsive to the needs and variables of the moment.
In their report The Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation, McKinsey found that the average marketing executive could save 15% of their labor time through the use of commercially available automation tools.
That report was in 2015. Only a few years on, the industry has changed dramatically with almost all reputable SaaS products now integrating natively or via third party providers with other systems and platforms.
Were McKinsey to undertake that study again today, there’s little doubt that the 15% figure would be significantly higher.
The potential to automate our processes is here – but we need to understand both what to automate and what not to automate. There is a ceiling on automation, after all.
The first thing you can look to automate in any process, regardless of your industry, is data entry. This can act as your first use case and your test to see what you can automate and how.
At Process Street, one automation we’ve used for a while now in our sales operations is an integration with Close.io.
When one of our sales reps is on a call with a prospective client, the sales rep follows the optimized process within Process Street and enters information as they gather it into the checklist. This keeps the rep in the one screen and keeps them following the process – boosting their performance.
When they’re happy with the information they have gathered, they check off a task in the sales checklist and all the information entered into form fields in the checklist is automatically moved into the Close.io CRM for reference and further use.
This reduces the time our reps have to spend managing client relations, while improving output via an optimized process, and enabling them to get through more calls more effectively. Bottom line: they can get more high value work done in a single day than before now that low value work is being completed by the software.
This is a simple example of how these kinds of automations can easily integrate into a non-IT flow.
You can watch this video below to see how this system works and how you could set it up in your business today.
How Process Street can help you automate set procedures
I’ve spent much of today reworking some of our systems in Process Street which run in largely the same way as these runbooks described.
Process Street operates on the basis of creating a template which acts as a process model. Each time you undertake the process you run the template as a checklist. This checklist acts as a single instance of a process.
Within each checklist – as you will have guessed – there are tasks which need to be checked off.
Via Zapier, you could connect each task – or only the ones you need – with an external application. When you check off a task in Process Street it would trigger a zap to fire to perform a predefined action.
Within each task you can provide extra instructions and rich media to make it easier for the user. You can also include form fields to add data into your checklist; data which can then be transported into other applications.
But it goes further. In Process Street you can build your template with conditional logic so that you can define the potential paths a process could take. This means you can have your automations set up to perform actions for tasks you check off, but whether those tasks appear on the checklist depends on how the process has performed so far.
For example: You’re selling a product and you have a task which asks you whether you already have the customer’s details in the system – are they a repeat customer or a new one? In the dropdown field you can choose yes or no.
If you choose no, a task could appear for you to gather the details in the form fields provided. When you check off that task those details are automatically entered into your CRM via a zap.
If you choose yes, the next stage of the process appears – maybe it has an automation attached, maybe it doesn’t?
The point is that the checklist defines the flow; it guides the process user.
The automations do the grunt work of moving data around or triggering contracts to be generated or notifying other team members.
It keeps the process user focused on the task at hand – which, particularly in a customer facing role, is a very important thing to be able to do. Customers like attention.
Process Street, in this way, allows for non-IT teams to operate with the same structural approach as we see in the super-efficient world of IT, while making it easier for the member of staff in the meantime.
Utilize runbook automation in IT and in marketing
Marketing, sales, accounting…
Whatever department it may be.
Bringing ease of use and efficiency into your team through solid principles of business process management teamed with the automation potential of IT is sure to be a winner.
Not just because of the efficiency savings, but because it makes work fun, fast, and faultless compared to the old approaches of navigating through multiple programs and tasks without a clear enough sense of direction.
Do you use runbook automation in your business? Have you tried implementing it in your other departments? Let me know of your experiences in the comments below!
I manage the content for Process Street and dabble in other projects inc language exchange app Idyoma on the side. Living in Sevilla in the south of Spain, my current hobby is learning Spanish! @adam_h_h on Twitter. Subscribe to my email newsletter here on Substack: Trust The Process. Or come join the conversation on Reddit at r/ProcessManagement.