The challenge of meeting service level agreements (SLAs) can often be the cause of sleepless nights for shipping directors. We all know the potential problems — late orders, incorrect documents, transportation hold-ups and the stress of meeting delivery schedules. Despite millions of dollars of investments in automation in the supply chain sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, just 20% of companies have completely digitized paperwork.
In fact, incredibly, a third still manually input data — with many admitting to printing out incoming emailed documents in order to physically copy the information back into a computer.
This old-school method of operation is putting strain on already tight deadlines, creating errors, and causing hold ups in the supply chain — much to the dissatisfaction of clients.
Intelligent process automation (IPA) — a collection of software tools and platforms used to simplify, automate, and manage processes — is the latest form of AI digital technology that aims to tackle this problem.
The biggest problem shippers face when improving and upgrading their systems is that they don’t know exactly how the current processes operate. Believe it or not, as many as 54% rely on employee feedback and hearsay — not proven analysis and data assessment. Perhaps this is why as many as a quarter abandoned their automation projects altogether and over a third (34%) started again with new tech, according to a recent survey.
The only way to have your operations working in a highly efficient way is to ensure you have an entirely holistic workflow — where each department and the next stage of a process falls seamlessly into place. Seems obvious right? But where do you start?
Automation planning technology such as process mining offers a bird’s eye view of your entire operations. Only by having a data-driven approach can you see bottlenecks, deviations, blinds spots, repetitive behavior and time-wasting steps. Armed with this sort of digital twin analysis of your processes, you can introduce tailored digital transformation that will provide quantitative outcomes. In fact, advanced process mining solutions provide on-going monitoring and alerting so you can see in real time any problems, diversions from the norm, or alterations that need to be made in the future.
It’s a known fact that the supply chain runs on documents — you name it, there’s a document for it — bills of lading, invoices, dock receipts, purchase orders, onboarding forms, proof of delivery, hazardous goods declarations. But how these documents are processed is where many shippers fall short and miss SLAs. By targeting labor-centric automation, every document should be intelligently processed. It could be adjusting for regulatory changes or simply updating information as requests change, and even new vendor onboarding.
Take customs declarations, for example. Planes can be delayed, and packages can miss shipments if you are not on top of processing the customs declarations — which originate mostly as documents. Do you scan them in the cab, use a mobile app, or scan at the depot? All are valid options, but the key is speed and accuracy. How fast you can transform the text locked within a document into accurate and actionable process ready data is the key to meeting SLA deadlines.
Verifying information in customs declarations are the biggest hold-up faced by transport and logistics companies. But clever software robots with AI cognitive human skills can now read, check and understand the content and make a decision on all documents. These new "brain skills" given to robotic process automation (RPA) bots means your custom declarations, or any document, can be touchless. The robots are more efficient and faster than experienced humans at catching overcharges, billing errors or suspicious requests.
One of the main reasons new technology fails is that users don’t like it — so won’t use it. Every upgrade needs to make life easier for your employees as well as your customers and partners.
Remote and hybrid working are making this issue even more important. In addition, the Great Resignation means companies are striving to keep current staff happy while fighting to find skilled workers to fill vacancies.
A recent survey among staff in the supply chain showed that two-thirds of employees are frustrated by document processing — with 73% saying they spend up to eight hours a week just looking for data in documents to complete their job. That’s a whole day a week wasted. More worryingly is that almost half (45%) said it causes delays, over a quarter (28%) said it results in errors, while 24% said it led to bad customer experience.
The good news is that you can now arm your staff with tools that will cut out this hunting game and unnecessary and repetitive steps. In fact, staff can now have access to pre-trained document "skills" which are no-code and plug-and-play that allows them to automate any document without the need for IT specialists getting involved. That could be digitizing and adding any new shipping-related forms into the workflow ranging from trade bills to dock receipts to labor logs, and supplier or employee onboarding forms. Instead of employees searching for information, punching in data, and transferring it, intelligent automation will do it for them quicker and more accurately.
You may think staff will not welcome this kind of technology, but studies show otherwise. As much as 70% of survey respondents working in supply chain organizations said they would welcome easy to use drag-and-drop software that automatically understands content and context of data in documents like an experienced worker. In addition, almost half (44%) said it would make their job easier, 35% said it would help them make faster decisions and 40% said it would enable them to work on higher value projects while also improving customer experience (30%).
Meeting SLAs is all about your company operating like a well-oiled engine and that means having your people, processes and content being fine-tuned and working holistically. That way, you will be able to adapt to change quickly and stay ahead of competitors — especially in times of crisis. By incorporating IPA to make this happen, you can be sure those sleepless nights will be few and far between.
Bruce Orcutt is senior vice president at ABBYY.
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