So, You Found the Perfect (Smart) Robot for Your Store. Now What?

Putting an intelligent automation solution to work is one thing. Getting it to work exactly how you need it to is another. That’s why you must commit as many resources to driving technology adoption as you do on technology integration.

An intelligent automation solution checks inventory while passing a grocery store associate and shopper
by Shawn Harris
March 09, 2021

*This post was co-written with Fady Salib, PEng, PMP, Client Engagement Program Manager at Zebra.

I’m not going to lie, choosing to invest in intelligent automation is not a simple undertaking. There are a lot of factors that must be weighed when evaluating the economics of a smart robot and an exhaustive list of performance, security, safety and management criteria to consider when shopping for this type of technology. We discussed many of them in these two blog posts

So, you might feel a bit of relief once you have made your selection and prep for implementation. You’re finally in the home stretch. But you can’t take your eye off the ball yet because what you do (or don’t do) next will directly influence your return on investment (ROI) time frame.

Solution Deployment is Not the Finish Line

Though technically a software solution, intelligent automation utilizes a very large hardware component that – if not properly assimilated – can lead to employee resistance, lagging adoption and loss of investment value. So, while your focus is going to shift to the deployment stage quite quickly after you select an intelligent automation solution, don’t skip the most important step in your implementation: employee training and adoption.

Even if you do everything right on the back end to integrate the shelf inventory and pricing data collected by the smart robot into your prescriptive analytics, inventory management and demand planning solutions, those insights could be rendered useless if associates – the ones who must ultimately act on those insights – don’t understand how to leverage them. The last thing you want is your team wasting time duplicating the robot’s work because they are unfamiliar with how to use it or embed it in their daily workflows. At the same time, if front-line workers perceive intelligent automation to be a threat to their jobs, your investment could end up being a blow to morale versus boosting it as intended.

Something else to remember is that intelligent automation can cause both confusion and interest among customers, both of which could become disruptive to your operation and their shopping experience if not proactively mitigated. When people first see a smart robot roaming store aisles, they may get excited or they may become uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar to them. Be sure you consider both your employees’ and your customers’ potential experiences with intelligent automation as you work through the design and implementation requirements. And make sure you clearly communicate its role in driving in-store and online service improvements to customers once you start to deploy. Change management is critical for everyone, not just your associates.

In other words, taking care to properly onboard your intelligent automation solution is critical to achieving your desired outcomes, but the deployment alone will not determine the performance, value, or ROI of this technology. You must prepare your people for what’s to come and educate them – better yet, show them – how the intelligent automation solution will help them deliver even more value.. Solution adoption (by your entire team) is what will secure the win.

How to Get Your Intelligent Automation Solution in Sync with Your Back-Office Systems and Front-Line Teams

I know you’ll be eager to put your intelligent automation investment to work. But, before you plug anything in, be sure you sit down with the right internal and external stakeholders to:

1. Set expectations and define goals.

It’s important to outline all the reasons why you embarked on this new endeavor. Are you hoping to reduce your overall operation cost, speed up your cycle time and/or recover lost revenue?

Even if you have completed this exercise before – and it’s very likely you’ve done this several times at this point – it’s imperative to do it again now. Though not recommended, it’s not unusual for a singular disciplinary team to spearhead the solution evaluation and selection processes. So, as you start to build and engage a cross-functional team to go the last mile – and sustain the intelligent automation system long term – you may not find the same people sitting around the table anymore, and everyone needs to be on the same page.

Even if you did have multiple parties engaged from day one, it’s quite possible that things have changed since you started this journey. Your “wish list” may have doubled in size, or you may have identified new challenges or opportunities that could impact objectives. Remember, intelligent automation is not just a single component. It’s a complete system that must integrate with many other systems, which can introduce more complexity once your entire technology architecture is mapped out and understood. At the same time, the software is very scalable and adaptable, so you may decide in the 11th hour that you need to adjust your intelligence mandates to achieve desired outcomes.

Just be sure to define the acceptable improvement thresholds as setting clear quantitative and qualitative performance metrics will keep your team focused on the most critical levers that support your goals.

2. Understand the implementation process – and what happens next.

Educating your team and selecting champions to lead this change is the first step in attaining your goals. It’s imperative they are fully onboard with what needs to happen and what they’re being asked to do. It’s usually recommended to start with a minimally viable product, or MVP implementation that can serve as a proof of concept. This enables you to de-risk major areas of concern before you fully deploy. At this stage, your objectives are less about ensuring that the technology you are implementing is working perfectly and more about understanding the many different ways that intelligent automation could support your business goals based on system capabilities in your unique operating environment.

Even though IT plays a key role in deploying intelligent automation since it provides servers, network access, and business integration, it is not the end user. Involve business operations, to include store managers, front-line associates, and other users of the intelligent automaton implementation output to ensure they:

  • understand what it can do.
  • are comfortable with what it does.
  • know how to interact with all system components, including the hardware (i.e. robot) and software (i.e. intelligence being pushed to their mobile computers and other devices).
  • fully accept the solution as a valued member of the team. (You may have to incentivize them, and that’s okay.)
  • are clear on their individual and collective roles in the implementation as well as post-deployment solution monitoring and management.

If you’re innovating in the way in which your business provides After Delivery Reports (ADR) using a system such as Zebra Smartsight™ EMA, make sure to involve the users who leverage these reports to provide you valuable feedback and provide guidance on how to maximize your ROI case.

A word to the wise: Do not omit the scaling plan! Everyone needs to be clear on how an intelligent automation implementation would grow its footprint within your business. There should be no surprises. Plus, the more time people have to plan for what’s coming, the more time they have to process and accept the changes and their role in them. It may be best to incorporate in the training curriculum.

3. Prepare your business.

Though discussions will remain prevalent throughout this phase, this is when you’ll start to take very targeted, tangible actions to turn on the system.

Once your internal stakeholders are ready to go, provide your partner with access to the data and business assets required to develop the detailed implementation plan. This might include operational insights, schedules and other dependencies that could impact integration, refinement and security decisions. They may also ask you to adjust other areas in your infrastructure required to support the intelligence automation solution, such as your IT infrastructure (i.e. Wi-Fi and servers) or user interfaces such as handheld mobile computers, wearables, scanners or tablets.

No two intelligent automation solution integrations are the same, and its best practice for solution providers to customize each engagement to their customers’ unique needs. (That’s why it was so important to lay all expectations out in earlier planning meetings.) Support your partner and their efforts, as this isn’t the first time they’ve done this. In fact, we’re often told by customers that they chose to work with Zebra because we’re uniquely able to develop, deploy and support intelligent automation solutions in an incremental way that’s best for their businesses.

A word to the wise: Capture a snapshot of your current business operation and performance before you make any changes and then at regular intervals to compare progress and flag issues that may arise.

Beware of These Two Potential Roadblocks

Your partner is going to do everything in its power to simplify the solution rollout (or they should, at least). But there are a couple of things that the Zebra team has encountered quite commonly when working with our customers that have made intelligent automation implementations more challenging than necessary:

1.  Involving the departments that support the actual deployment as described above but forgetting to ramp up the other teams that interacting with it on a daily basis long term. (This is why I recommend engaging all end users before you even start the proof-of-concept implementation. Front-line workers and those managing the system on the back end must buy in before you go live.)

2. Selecting the toughest applications to test the technology rather than a standard application. These complex applications doom the new implementations to fail and cause you to build a conception of its dysfunctionality because they are normally corner cases with little contribution to the ROI case. Therefore, starting with the most common applications (i.e. low-hanging fruit) is critical to building small wins. You can then expand the solution’s capabilities from there. Don’t forget that new technologies – and new capabilities within existing technology platforms – are being developed daily. It will become easier to tackle your more difficult applications over time. That’s why it’s so very important to select a partner that’s capable of innovation.

Final Thoughts

I can’t stress this enough, but deployment of your intelligent automation solution is not the end game – it’s just the enabler on your journey to becoming a more intelligent enterprise (or small business). The right partner will know that and likely emphasize it as much as I do. More importantly, they will take that fact into account as they’re working with you to define the solution implementation and employee education processes.

That’s why you need to scrutinize both a solution’s capabilities and the solution provider’s capabilities with equal discernment. If you enlist a manufacturer to guide you on this journey because they have “good products,” just be sure it also has the ability to:

  • provide effective support for current products.
  • continually innovate so that you aren’t suddenly stuck with an obsolete system. (Ask about its development strategy and roadmap on day one.)
  • implement the solution squarely in the context of your pain points. (If they’re trying to force fit the "solution” into your environment and it doesn’t center on your target issues, then it “isn’t going to solve anything.)
  • help you scale intelligently and in stages without introducing unnecessary risks.
  • develop an agile project plan for your sub-projects so that you’re not stuck guessing the best next step to take. (That would be a bit ironic, wouldn’t it?)
  • stretch the boundaries of its solution and expand the scope of your project (and its support) as you continue to grow your implementation footprint.

It is also critical that you remain agile throughout this entire process. It will help if you proactively:

  • monitor your key performance indicators (KPI) and track them overtime.
  • evaluate solution performance periodically and select areas for improvement.
  • take measured steps to adapt your business to these newly untapped potentials.
  • leverage your displaced labor in other areas within your operations which potentially impact your customer’s experience (and help boost employee value and morale).
  • award champions of this advancement within your team and continue to empower them to lead.

My last piece of advice (for now): accept that things may not always go as planned. There may be hiccups during the deployment. There may not be instant harmony between your associates and the intelligent automation solution. And a million external factors could interfere with your ability to achieve desired outcomes in the timeline you defined. (Can you imagine what retailers must have felt when COVID-19 hit in the middle of their solution rollout?)

But if you take all of the above tips into account and have the right partner on speed dial, things should turn out better than expected! In fact, those who had deployed the Zebra SmartSight robot-as-a-service (RaaS) solution prior to the pandemic found themselves better able to recover from the initial surge demand impact. Their teams had the visibility they needed to manage shelf stock more efficiently and employees who may have been resistant at first became appreciative of the “extra eyes” on the floor as well as the actionable intelligence it was feeding to their mobile computers. They didn’t have to scramble quite as much as their peers to appease customers and save sales.

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Shawn Harris
Shawn currently leads go-to-market efforts for Zebra SmartSight as Director of North American Sales. In this role, Mr. Harris helps Zebra’s retail customers navigate the ever-changing retail landscape and truly digitize their store floors. He provides thought leadership, pragmatic insights and innovative solutions on issues pertaining to the implications of Intelligent Automation and Artificial Intelligence for business strategy, customer experience, inventory visibility and staff productivity.