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How NOT to Fail at Process Automation and Continual Improvement

Chris KunselmanProcess Automation and Continual Improvementby Chris Kunselman

A big part of my job at VMware is to help customers transform to an SDDC environment. For VMware Operations Transformation Services, that means understanding the business reasons behind their strategy for an SDDC and Private Cloud, and then defining the roadmap to achieving this strategy.  The transformation is the journey along the way.  Typically, this means significant changes to an organization’s culture, paradigms, skills, technology and operational processes.

Usually our customers already have some level of IT Service Management (ITSM) maturity around operations.  They also usually have highly qualified talent who understand the management of technology.  However, what they sometimes lack is the mindset, skills, and experience necessary to effectively scale a privately operated cloud.  To do this, they need to focus on end-to-end process automation through a rigorous approach to continual improvement.

Without an approach to automation, companies will not be able to scale their operations, retire their legacy environments, and realize the full business value from their investment in VMware technology.  Hear more about this at my VMworld 2016 breakout session, “Tips for Realizing the Full Value of Your SDDC Transformation” (add SDDC7692 to your agenda).

Continual improvement and process automation go hand-in-hand if an organization truly intends to operate their cloud as a business, and gain the benefits from the use of vRealize Automation (vRA), vRealize Orchestration (vRO), and vRealize Operations (vROps).  VMware solutions bring a new potential for an organization to finally achieve the highest level of process maturity.  Automation and continual improvement should be a component of every private cloud operations team.

The Importance of Continual Process Improvement

Imagine that you currently have six globally located private cloud data centers, and four thousand application workloads already migrated to your private cloud.  Not only that, but you are continuing to migrate an average of 400 legacy workloads per month into your SDDC.  That means in one year, the number of your workloads will have more than doubled!

In my experience working with customers, most of them don’t plan to manage their IT services in the same way and with the same number of resources as they manage their legacy environment.  They don’t plan to double their team size as their SDDC grows, but this is a very likely scenario.

Virtualizing your infrastructure creates more demand from the business, for even faster delivery of the same legacy services.  Merely moving your legacy environment to your new virtual private cloud does not give you the full payback you would expect, unless you also have a strategy for continual improvement and automation.  A vast amount of operational cost can be saved if you automate.  However, to achieve this, your continual improvement team should have a good mix of business process re-engineering, systems integration, and development skills

VMware’s Approach to Automating Processes and Establishing Continual Improvement

Say, for example, the request for increasing capacity occurs very frequently in your environment.  Let’s say it takes your team members eight hours to provision 20 of these requests in vRA.  The reasons it takes so long may vary, but it usually boils down to regulatory controls, change control approvals, documentation, and many tedious steps in various systems, performed by different teams.

You start with automating this process so that it takes just a button push to approve it and the rest happens automatically through vRO orchestration, and vRA to provision the request.  After taking out most of the manual tasks in this process, your same resource could provision 20 of these requests in an hour, becoming eight times as productive.  This is the type of scenario you want to tackle on a continual basis.

VMware operations transformation consultants use an incremental approach with customers that works well within agile IT environments.  We work with your business process team to identify these opportunities, prioritize them, and drive them to completion through a series of development sprints.  This requires a strong collaboration between IT business process experts, your ITSM systems and your VMware automation/development team.

Customers often miss crucial aspects of continual improvement, leading us at VMware to create a practical and comprehensive step-by-step approach to follow continual improvement practices by automating end-to-end IT processes.  By following this approach, customers can derive measurable value from their private cloud transformation by increasing the quality of service delivery, removing unnecessary labor, and human intervention

Deep Dive Analysis

We begin with a deep dive analysis of the particular processes we aim to automate.  We look at all types of changes that exist to identify changes that are executed frequently, performed with consistency and require many steps and approvals, then determine which of these can be automated.  We establish a backlog of these automation opportunities.

It is important to note that due to regulatory concerns, it is not possible to automate the provisioning steps of every type of change, especially major changes.  Typically, the list of potential automation opportunities is made up of standard change types that do not require approval.

Because we want to automate the end-to-end IT process, it is important to look at every segment of the manual process.  Some process segments will require forms and data capture, or integration that populates form data and automatically passes this data into vRO, and/or vRA.  Other processes may require approval steps.  This type of end-to-end automation involves integration between multiple systems, such as request ticketing, change ticketing, and VMware vRA, vRO systems for provisioning and orchestration.  We look at the business processes, business and compliancy requirements, as we engineer the automation to ensure we automate the right activities.

Calculate Expected Business Value

Next, we calculate the expected business value to be gained from the automation of each change type that we have identified as an automation candidate. This is a cost analysis of the duration, time, and number of people it currently takes perform each step in the process.  From this information, we can determine the “time-cost” of the entire process.  Once we have an idea of the time cost of every process in the backlog, we can determine which automation opportunities will drive the most benefit.  We rank and prioritize these opportunities based on how much value they will bring to the overall virtualization business case.

Develop a “To-Be” Design for Each Process

Starting at the top of the priority list, we write flow diagrams for how the process will work in an automated fashion.  The workflow diagrams include the user to user, user to system, and system to system interactions and use cases.  From these diagrams, we define functional requirements, inputs, outputs, triggers, roles and responsibilities.  Most importantly, during this step, we establish reasonable metrics for measuring the outcome of the effort.

Validation & Implementation

We then hand-off the functional automation requirements to the automation development team.  This team analyzes the functional requirements, and then creates a technical design.  During the design stage, the technical design team comes back to the business process automation engineer who validates whether or not the technical design meets the functional requirements.  This ensures that the goals for time-cost reduction will be met.

Very often, the development team cannot fit all the required functionality into the first release of this process automation.  So we also must prioritize the technical requirements associated with each automation opportunity, placing them into various releases.

By the time the final release is implemented, the full end-to-end automation exists and we are able to measure the business value metrics that we set out to achieve.  The customer begins capturing performance information on the automated process to determine if the automated effort is consistently saving the time cost it is intended to save.

Keys to Success

Following this methodology ensures that our customers get the benefits they were looking for, maximizing cost savings and optimizing operational efficiency.  By effectively prioritizing your process automations, we ensure the ongoing success of your continual improvement program.  We analyze the functional requirements of each end-to-end process first, ensure that we evaluate improvements to the process before automation, and make sure improvements align to existing policies and regulatory requirements.  It doesn’t make sense to automate a bad process.

Tight integration between your business process and your technical development teams is also key to success.  In some situations, a technical team will attempt automation on its own, often with little understanding of the full end-to-end process.  When that happens, their effort may not focus on achieving a clear business objective. By not evaluating the full end-to-end process, their attempt of automating only parts of a process, will not reduce the cost of labor effectively

By formalizing automation efforts as part of a continual improvement program, customers can achieve these improvements incrementally, over time, and within their normal operational budget.  But most importantly, they gain increasing value from the investment in VMware technology.  With our continual improvement approach, one successful automation project creates a “quick win scenario” that sets you up to tackle all the others that follow, with a focus on achieving and measuring specific business outcomes.

If you are interested in creating a plan for process automation and continuous improvement, reach out to your local VMware representative and my team would be happy to help.


Chris Kunselman is a Senior Transformation Consultant with VMware Operations Transformation Services and is based in Pennsylvania.  ckunselman@vmware.com

7 Key Steps to Migrate Your Provisioning Processes to the Cloud

By David Crane

dcrane-cropIn an earlier blog, my colleague Andy Troup shared an experience where his customer wanted to embark on a process automation project, which could have had disastrous (and consequently frustrating and costly) results, as the process itself was inherently unsuitable for automation.

Automating processes is one of the first projects that organizations embark on once a cloud infrastructure is in place, but why? The answer lies in legacy IT organizations structures that have typically operated in silos.

Many of the IT organizations that I work with have a number of groups such as service development, sales engineering, infrastructure engineering, and IT security that face similar challenges that can include (among many others):

  • Applications provisioned across multiple environments such as development, QA, UAT, sales demonstrations, and production
  • Managing deployments of application workloads in a safe and consistent manner
  • Balancing the speed and agility of deploying the services required to deliver and improve business results while meeting compliance, security, and resource constraints

With the agility that cloud computing offers, organizations look to the benefits that automating the provisioning processes may bring to overcome the above challenges such as:

  • Reduced cycle time and operating costs
  • Improved security, compliance, and risk management
  • Reduced capital and operating expenditures
  • Reduced need for management/human intervention
  • Improved deployment/provisioning time
  • Consistent quality in delivery of services

The IT organizations I work with are often sold these benefits without consideration of the operational transformation required to achieve them. Consequently, when the IT team kicks off a project to automate business processes, especially service provisioning, their focus is on the potential benefits that may be achieved. The result of this focus is that automation becomes a panacea, and not something that should underpin the IT organization’s overall operational transformation project.

As IT leaders, when considering migrating your provisioning processes to your cloud environment, you need to realize that automation alone will not necessarily provide the cure to problems that exist within a process.

You should not consider the benefits of automation in isolation. For example, too much focus on cost reduction can frequently lead to compromise in other areas leading to objections and resistance from business stakeholders. You should consider other benefits that have non-tangible (or direct) metrics, such as improved staff satisfaction. Automation frees your technical staff from repetitive (and uninteresting) activities, which results in both improved staff retention and indirect cost benefit.

As you select processes to migrate from a physical (or virtual) environment to the cloud, the subsequent automation of those processes should not be an arbitrary decision. Frequently my clients choose processes as candidates for automation for reasons based on personal preferences, internal political pressures, or because some process owners shout louder than others!

Instead the desired business benefits the organization wishes to achieve should be considered in conjunction with the characteristics, attributes, and measurable metrics of a process characteristics and a formal assessment made of its suitability for automation.

Your automation project should also be implemented in conjunction with an organization structure assessment, which may require transformation and the introduction of new roles and responsibilities required to support the delivery of automated and self-optimizing processes.

Important Steps to Your Successful Process Assessment
Based on my experience assisting customers in this exercise, I recommend taking these steps before you embark on a process assessment:

  1. Understand automation and what it actually means and requires. Many organizations embark on automation without actually understanding what this means and the context of automated processes and their capabilities. Subsequent delivery then either leads to disappointment as automation does not meet expectations, or the process is not truly automated but instead has some automated features that do not deliver all the expected benefits.
  2. Identify and document the expected business benefits to be achieved through introduction of process automation. This is an important task. Without understanding the benefits automation is expected to achieve, you cannot identify which processes are the correct choices to help you do just that.
  3. Understand cloud infrastructure system management capabilities required to support process automation (e.g., ability to detect environmental changes, process throughput monitoring capability) and implement if required.
  4. Identify ALL processes required to support automated provisioning (e.g., instantiation, governance, approval) to create a process portfolio.
  5. Identify the common process automation characteristics that exist across the process portfolio (e.g., self configuration, self healing, self audit and metric analysis). Note that process characteristics are unique, high-level identifiers of automation across the portfolio.
  6. Identify the common attributes that the process characteristics share. These are more granular than process characteristics and thus may be common to more than one characteristic in the same process.
  7. Identify the metrics available for each process in the portfolio, and apply a maturity assessment based on their ability to be measured and utilized. Metric maturity is an essential part of the assessment process as it determines not just the suitability of the process for automation, but also its capability to perform self optimization.

Process Assessment Weighting and Scoring
When undertaking a process assessment program, an organization needs to understand what is important and prioritize accordingly. For example, if we consider the business benefits of automation, a managed service provider would probably prioritize business benefits differently to a motor trade retail customer.

Once you’ve prioritized your processes, they can be assessed more accurately and weighted based on each identified business benefit. Prioritization and weighting is essential, and you need to carefully consider the outcomes of this exercise in order for your process assessment to reflect accurately whether processes are suitable for automation or not.

And remember, as previously mentioned avoid considering each assessment criteria in isolation. Each process characteristic and associated attribute can have a direct impact on the desired business benefit, however if its metric maturity is insufficient to support it, then the business benefit will not be fully achieved.

For example, let’s say that you have identified that a business process you wish to automate has a self-healing characteristic. One of the attributes the characteristic possesses is the ability to perform dynamic adjustment based on real-time process metrics. The characteristic and attribute would lead you to expect the realize benefits such as reduced cycle time, reduced OpEx, consistent quality of service, and improved staff retention.

However, although you’ve identified the metrics required to meet the characteristic and attribute needs, they are neither measured or acted upon. Consequently, because the metric maturity level is low, then the expected business benefit realization capability is also lowered.

Figure 1 below shows a small sample of the assessment of a process in relation to a single process characteristic, common attributes, anticipated business benefits and their weighting and the impact that a poor metric maturity has on their capability to deliver the anticipated business benefit.

Figure 1. Assessment displaying impact of low metric maturity

Contrast this to Figure 2 below, which assesses a process with exactly the same characteristics, attributes, business benefits, but has supporting management capabilities and consequently much improved metric maturity:

Figure 2. Assessment displaying impact of high metric maturity

Based on this small data sample, the process in Figure 2 is a more likely candidate for process automation. The assessment process also then identifies, and allows the IT organization to focus on, areas of remediation needed to optimize processes to enable them to be suitable automation candidates.

The result is the IT organization is able to realize not just the business benefits that have been promised by automation more effectively, but they are also able to set realistic expectations with the business, which brings benefits all of its own.

In summary, automation is not the “silver bullet” for broken or inefficient processes. IT leaders need to consider expected business benefits in conjunction with process characteristics, attributes, and metrics and in the context of what is important to the business. By assessing the suitability of a process for automation, you can save the cost of a failed project and disappointed stakeholders. Finally, you should not undertake any provisioning process project in isolation to other operations transformation projects, such as organization structure and implementation of cloud service management capabilities.

I will discuss the steps to success mentioned above in more detail in my next blog.


David Crane is an operations architect with the VMware Operations Transformation global practice and is based in the U.K.