Developments in automation, internet of things and robotics are having a big impact on the logistics industry. But complex and expensive technology still relies on the accuracy of human decision-making and record keeping, argues James Woodall

History doesn’t record who first created the printed checklist, but they surely introduced one of the most widespread and intractable business processes in the world. In countless businesses across the whole spread of industries, critical business processes remain wedded to pen and paper, excel sheets, and little else.

Of course, there is elegance in simplicity. What can go wrong with a checklist? But I continue to speak to multi-million-pound companies that are investing huge sums in automation and technology, without addressing the biggest bottlenecks in their business.

List-based processes are an innate part of our daily working lives. They may take the form of checklists, health and safety documentation, inventory checks, repair schedules or picking lists. Research suggests that the majority of businesses globally still rely on paper for many of these. For example, the industry dedicated to aircraft maintenance and repair is estimated to be worth $67 billion per year, and paper continues to be the most common way to track who did what repair to which aircraft. This is despite a report published a number of years ago which suggested that between 45 per cent and 60 per cent of serious aircraft maintenance issues were a result of poor documentation. Paper is easily lost and damaged, requires physical storage, and is at risk of being copied and falsified.

Today, documentation can easily be digitised, with pick lists displayed on a tablet instead of a clipboard. But that is just swapping one format for another, rather than fundamentally looking at the whole issue of data capture and the broader effect on a business.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that there is no effective way to record detailed contextual data with paper-based processes, which means businesses are losing massive amounts of invaluable data that could make their businesses more efficient, and save them money. Simply replacing paper with digital documents also doesn’t solve this problem, as although the paper is now eliminated, the problem of recording the contextual data is still missing.

So, businesses that see technology as a route to becoming leaner, faster and more efficient should take care to ensure any shift to digital processes considers the wider implications around data capture. After all, data and intelligence is one of the most valuable commodities any business has, and even simple processes can contribute in a meaningful way is designed correctly.

Take for example the use of robots and automation in warehousing. Companies such as Ocado have developed fully autonomous warehouses, where hundreds of robot pickers located above the racks of goods can grab them, sending them along intelligently-controlled conveyor belts for the warehouse workers to pack the groceries for home delivery.

Whilst the high levels of automation have significantly increased the number of orders which can be packed and dispatched each day, the efficiency of the whole process still relies on the skill and speed of the workers. So, in this highly-automated set-up, a lot of responsibility is placed on those workers to not become a process bottleneck. But their efficiency will always be limited by the processes they are expected to implement; if there are errors in the goods that have been picked, any technology-based time savings are immediately lost. Or, if the checklist or process they are using has not been intelligently designed, useful data that could help show up any problems or inefficiencies is not captured.

Therefore, there is an obvious opportunity to help workers reduce mistakes and contribute to the efficiency gains that automation has brought. Shifting away from a very binary checklist or yes/no decision tree suddenly captures the contextual data that is rarely recorded, but can be invaluable for identifying problems and bottlenecks.

Once data is being captured, then it is straightforward to build visualisation tools that turns this raw data into business intelligence. We give the businesses we work with a real-time view of their workforce, helping them to identify any issues or delays before they become critical. We’ve even found that this approach empowers the workforce directly, allowing them to tweak existing processes or introduce new ones that are faster or simpler.

Whole swathes of industry are seeing tremendous change as new technologies disrupt and augment them. Many of these are headline grabbing and the stuff of science-fiction movies from years past. But much as the modern workplace is evolving, business will always rely on its workforce, and we should not let the rush to innovate and invest obscure this. There is so much that can be done to improve human-work processes, and for workers to retain their value within our new technology landscape. And it starts with saying goodbye to all those paper checklists.

James Woodall
James Woodall is co-founder and CTO at Intoware. Intoware is a human process improvement platform that solves workflow problems for business, no matter the industry. It has created software that allows any company – but particularly large organisations with maintenance and logistics needs – to digitise processes and workflows onto mobiles, tablets and wearables. Its product, WorkfloPlus, is device agnostic, can run from all forms of hardware, hands-free, in any environment, online or offline. The software has been developed to be simple to use, making adoption and integration quick and easy