Automation ensures quality beyond tech

Photo from the Mallala MuseumLast week I wrote how automated systems build (e.g. Puppet, Chef and Ansible) improves quality as well as speed. By coincidence, this week I’ve been involved a great demonstration of the same idea, but applied to wider business.

We’re moving house. As a consequence there are an awful lot of organisations that need to be informed of this. Fortunately I kept a spreadsheet of those organisations from the last time we moved so it’s not been too taxing. But it’s been very educational to see how different organisations handle it. And all the most useful examples come from the world of finance.

For boring historical reasons I’ve got various bank and building society accounts, and yet they are very different in their approach. Here is one painful example. To change my address I need to fill out a form and post it off. It sounds easy, but there are various problems. First, it takes days, if not weeks, to get feedback on the success of this. Second, it requires me providing redundant information, which is wasteful—for some reason I need to provide my current address, even though they already know this. Third, when it does go wrong it takes up a lot of my time and theirs—and therefore a lot of their money. Last time it went wrong because the signature I provided didn’t match what they had on record; then it went wrong because it was a joint account and my wife’s hadn’t signed it; then it went wrong again because of something to with updating the address for both the account and the bank-wide copy of the address. It tooks weeks to sort out. And, of course, it was a significant cost to the bank.

Another bank requires me to present myself at a local branch with various forms of ID. Again, easy in theory. But it takes time from their staff, and I’ve not even done it yet because I’m struggling to find free time during the day that lines up with their business hours.

Meanwhile at the other extreme, for a third bank I could just log in to the website and change my address there. It was updated instantly, and of course it was right first time. None of their staff time was taken up with processing the change, let alone sorting out any mistakes.

It’s notable that all these very different ways of tackling the problem come from companies in the same industry. One of them can execute it perfectly, but others struggle. I think it is no coincidence that the great example is automated and the problematic ones require manual steps.

Earlier this year I heard Roger Evernden talk about a bank that wanted to put its customer at the heart of its business, but it required a signficant systems rearchitecture, because its present system centred on the account, instead. Organising a business to do things right first time can be very time-consuming. But when you get it right, speed and quality improve dramatically.

Photo from the Mallala Museum