Energy company on a mission to automate processes

Robotic process automation delivers huge savings.

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Utilities are often looking for ways to add efficiencies and cut costs. For DTE Energy, robotic process automation (RPA) is providing an opportunity to do this in a big way.

The company, which provides energy services including electricity and natural gas to 2.2 million customers, since 2017 has been trying to automate as many business processes as possible.

Conceptualizing and developing RPA automation is a specialized skill and a significant departure from the conventional IT development process, said Ajay Gupta, senior manager of intelligent business automation at DTE. Given that, the company brought in consulting firm Accenture to help with the deployment.

While Accenture helped DTE implement Blue Prism's RPA platform, DTE in parallel developed its in-house expertise for developing and maintaining automation. That team of developers, architects, and bot controllers, the Intelligent Business Automation Team, would be responsible for meeting new demands for automation from business groups and maintaining the automation already deployed.

"Our investment in developing in-house competencies in this area instead of solely relying on [a partner] has been instrumental in our development and maturity of our in-house capability," Gupta said. 

The team, aided by its implementation partners, carried out an analysis of key processes companywide to identify potential automation candidates. The automation candidates were prioritized based on business value and the implementation complexity. These efforts culminated in the development of an enterprise-wide automation roadmap, Gupta said.

The team is now managing 35 automated processes. By automating these processes with RPA, the company has saved nearly one quarter million annualized man-hours and has 75 automations in the backlog queue. Throughout 2019, DTE plans to implement 35 more automations in 5 additional business units.

Implementing RPA can be tricky for several reasons, including the challenge of integrating various applications, and getting people on board with a technology that has the potential to displace human workers.

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DTE Energy discovered several key factors that have been critical to its success with the technology. One is having a cohesive automation strategy. "We focused on breaking down silos existing within the organization and [developing] a unified RPA strategy," Gupta said.

Some of the key activities involved in building this strategy included creating a governance structure and operating model for automation companywide; assessing the existing IT operating model and integrating the RPA operating model into it; establishing a central funding and value realization methodology.

Another factor was effective enterprise engagement. "Our RPA program was envisioned, designed, and implemented with the express intent of making DTE's human capital more productive," Gupta said. "For our RPA program to be truly inclusive with an organization-wide impact, it was important to gain the buy-in from business and functional leaders within the organization" who would be affected.

The Intelligent Business Automation Team, at the very onset, conducted roadshows for the entire leadership team to explain the potentially transformative impact of RPA in their areas. "To our employees, RPA is not a technology to replace them or to dramatically change the way they work, but a tool that will help them be more efficient -- thus freeing them to work on higher-value activities," Gupta said.