The Great Excel Escape

Robotics Process Automation is freeing team members from the drudgery of data entry, allowing for more focus on the creativity of data analysis

January 29, 2019
Demand & Supply -- Systems & Innovations Manager Grant Parker and his team are using RPA to stay on top of the monthly task of balancing vehicle orders from the field with production realities at the manufacturing plants. Photo by Tim Rice

Asset Management’s Kenneth Eassa says half his time in the office used to be consumed by manual data entry. Same goes for his teammates.

Grant Parker can certainly relate. He and his colleagues in Demand & Supply also used to routinely find themselves neck deep in, as he puts it, “soul-sucking Excel work.”

But no more. Since learning about and adapting a new breed of software known as Robotics Process Automation (RPA) to their needs, both of these departments have begun to free themselves from the mind-numbing chore of crunching data so they can focus instead on the mind-stimulating challenge of analyzing it.

As a result, they’re making better decisions. That’s making the company more competitive. And it’s making for a more fulfilled workforce.

A Quiet Revolution

David Smith, who is the business lead in TMNA’s Center of Excellence for RPA, says this dynamic is quietly beginning to play itself out across the organization. Less than a year after starting to learn about the capabilities of this software, teams have implemented more than 30 automations that are projected to spare team members some 13,000 hours of repetitive computer-mediated drudgery.

Safe to say both of those metrics will grow, perhaps exponentially.

“RPA is, simply, software that can automate the clicks and keystrokes that many of us perform day in and day out across multiple applications,” says Smith. “If you can access it, the software — or robot — can access it, too. It knows what to do next based on the rules you program into the workflow. This isn’t machine learning or artificial intelligence. It relies on a simple decision tree to dictate the keystrokes. And it can carry out these tasks more quickly and with far fewer errors than humans.”

The challenge, then, is setting up the software to do exactly what you need it to do — over and over and over again. But Smith says you don’t have to be a programmer to make that magic happen. With just a bit of training and some determination, business users have managed to build their applications without help from IS.

Asset Management -- Analyst Kenneth Eassa says RPA has helped his colleagues track spending on new systems at Toyota's North American manufacturing facilities. Photo by Tim Rice

Case Study: Asset Management

That was the case for Asset Management. One of their responsibilities is to manage a huge Construction in Progress (CIP) database that tracks the funding for new projects and assets in an Excel spreadsheet. When each asset is deployed, its data must be manually transferred to an application in PeopleSoft. We’re talking about thousands of invoice lines accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars of assets — such as the cost of a new mechanical robot as well as the labor to install it on an assembly line.

Kenneth Eassa says he and his team used to struggle to stay afloat amid this flood of minutiae. Then RPA came along.

“It only took about a week to map out the process and from there it was really quick to get the design done,” says Eassa. “We estimate RPA is going to save our team 1,300 hours per year. When I started on this job two years ago, we had more than $600 million of assets in CIP at TMMK related to the start-up of the current Camry. That’s now down to $200 million. As we get caught up with CIP, we’ll have more time to focus on the coming transition to the new ERP system. That’s a huge benefit.”

Case Study: Demand & Supply

Grant Parker tells a similar story. Each month, his team is under intense time-sensitive pressure to balance vehicle orders from the field with the production realities at the North American plants. Before RPA, team members faced the daunting task of sorting through data across multiple tools cobbled together over the years to form the company’s legacy ordering system. Now, the software does much of this granular work effortlessly and flawlessly.

“RPA runs 42 tools, one for each vehicle, and each tool has to operate across three different systems,” says Parker. “It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle. RPA puts all the pieces in place so we have a clear allocation picture on one screen. That allows us to make better decisions a lot faster. This tool alone will save us 3,600 hours per year. And it’s just one of eight RPA applications we have running right now.”

The Future of Work

Much has been achieved. But it’s really just the beginning.

“This technology promises a future of work than can be fun and exciting,” says Smith. “As I see it, that’s where Toyota needs to go if it’s going to continue to attract and retain the best people and remain an industry leader.”

By Dan Miller

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