Automation and the Power of Process Improvement

Three recent experiences remind me that automation for the sake of automation doesn’t really do much. But if automation can be used to improve processes, eliminate repetition, and redundancy, then it is well worth investing the time to improve the automation. It is a personal pet peeve of mine whenever I have to supply the same piece of information more than one in a given transaction, especially when that data is available somewhere else. Here are two small failures, and one small success to illustrate where we stand with automation and process improvement in day-to-day tasks.

“Would you like to apply for a Target Red Card?”

The complex we live in borders a Target and Safeway shopping center. This has been very convenient. We can walk to the store. It means we probably go more frequently than we need to. And because Target has pretty much everything, we go there quite a bit. Eventually, we decided to get one of their Red Card credit cards because we save 5% on every purchase. Once we had the card, I set it up to pay the bill in full each month. There is no point in saving 5% on purchases if you are paying 19% interest. So we get a nice benefit on every purchase we make from Target. So far, so good.

Recently, however, it seems that Target is really pushing the use of the Red Card to the exclusion of all logic. For instance, on several occasions, I’d put my items on the conveyor, slide my Red Card and wait for the total.

“Would you like to apply for a Target Red Card?” the cashier asked.

I blinked. “Well,” I said, holding up my Target Red Card, “I just paid with mine. Do I need another?”

The cashier laughed and we each went about our day.

But it happened again on the next visit with a different cashier. And then again. And again.

Finally, I said to the cashier, “You guys have been asking this quite a bit. I pay with my Red Card every time I come here and you always ask me if I want to apply for a Red Card. Isn’t there something on your screen that tells you that I have paid with a Red Card?”

The cashier said, “We are told to ask everyone, even if you already have a Red Card?”

“What sense does that make? If I say, ‘yes’ and apply for a second Red Card what would happen?”

The cashier just shrugged.

I don’t mind being asked this once or twice, but every single time I come to Target, and when I have already swiped my Red Card? That seems like a major breakdown, not just in a logical process, but in customer service.

“Can you fill out these forms?”

I took the Little Man to the doctor the other day. There is a nice touch-screen system to check in, and pay your co-pay, if one is due. It’s a nice piece of automation. But it failed this time. The system told me to see the desk. So I saw the receptionist and he told me that since it was the Little Man’s first visit this year, I had to fill out some forms. He handed me three forms.

The forms were all standard information. Parent names, addresses, phone numbers, insurance company information. I filled them out at a slow burn because I knew what would happen. I’d turn the papers back to the receptionist and he would key in my responses to the central system. So not only was I entering the information, but he was entering the information. He had to parse my handwriting, increasing the chance that some of the data would be entered incorrectly.

What would have been much better would have been to take advantage of the automation they already had. When I checked in, the touch-screen system could have displayed my address, phone number, insurance info, etc. and asked me to make any updates that were required. In this case, I would need only make changes to those items that required changes. (None did in this case, so from my point of view, filling out the forms was a complete waste of time.) Then, too, since I would make the changes directly into the system, it would save the receptionist the time of having to manually key my changes into the system, mistakes and all.

An automation success

I don’t travel nearly as much as I used to. Back when I traveled a lot, I used my United Mileage Plus credit card a lot because I earned miles for upgrades faster. It seems kind of pointless to use that card much these days. So a year ago or so, I got another card from the bank which handles our mortgage. With purchases on that card, we earned points that would pay down the principle on our mortgage. These were not big payments, but $25 here and there saves a fair amount of interest over 30 years. The card was tied to our mortgage account so that it could appropriately apply the credits each month.

In December, we refinanced with the same company. Our old mortgage was paid off in full and we had a new mortgage account at the refinanced rate. Not long ago, I got a letter from the mortgage company. It told me that it tried to apply a $25 credit to our mortgage account from the points we’d earned with the credit card. However, the account had been paid in full. Instead, it said, the system noted that we had another mortage with the company and so this payment (and all future credits) would be applied to that account.

I thought this was great! I had forgotten all about the credits we get for using the card and would have never thought to change the account when the mortgage was refinanced. But their system was smart enough to pick up the change and moreover, do the right thing and apply the credit to the new mortgage. It showed all the signs of a well thought-out use case.

We have a lot of data out there, and the more the disparate systems that generate and consume the data can do so in an elegant fashion, the better we can improve this type of automation. Indeed, I can foresee a time when filling out forms of any kind will become irrelevant. We will each be able to maintain a master list of responses, which we can keep up-to-date, and other systems will be granted permission to use these master lists. All we’ll need to do is provide some kind of authorization and (digital) signature. Given how many forms we fill out, and given how many silly questions we get asked, I look forward to the day when this becomes a reality.


  1. This post made me laugh! I can’t possibly tell you how many times (at a wide range of retail stores) that I have gone to use the card reader to pay my bill, and, as is typical, the reader directs me to choose a (DEBIT) or a (CREDIT) transaction. All pretty easy. I push the appropriate button, and then inevitably the cashier later asks me “Is that Debit or Credit?” I literally have to keep myself from blurting out, “I just pushed the button! Why do you need me to ask that question again?!” Has this ever happened to you?

    Sorry for the rant on a rather inconsequential subject, but I couldn’t resist commenting after reading your great post. Keep up the good work!

  2. Lack of common sense drives me nuts.

    Plus, you know when you have to enter in your account number or other details into an automated system and then finally get to a person and they ask for the same damn information? Head explodes.

  3. Oh, Jamie, I think you’ve found a common hot topic here!

    Re Target: I bet management thought it would be easier to train people to ask EVERY time, rather than counting on them to correctly select when they should ask. Amusing, but not too irritating.

    Doctor’s offices: You hit one of my pet peeves. The redundancy drives me crazy!! Today I took my daughter to her pediatrician. They are preparing to automate their medical records this summer. I was given a form to complete that asked me to:
    1) Provide all the name, address, DOB stuff — why couldn’t they just provide that from the charts and ask me to make any needed updates, rather than expecting me to spend time providing info they already have?
    2) List all her medications (immediately after the nurse had just asked me to provide the same info verbally for her chart.)
    3) Provide her medical history and the family medical history. I drew the line there and wrote: “On file here.” I had very recently provided them a complete written summary that required about 5 pages of information. Not only did I not have the info with me, but I thought it was pretty outrageous that someone was trying to get me to do so much extra work. The doctor laughed when she saw what I had written and said “Very clever!” We’ll see what happens next.

    Duplicate header info: Related to all of the above, I also hate it when an office hands you a stack of forms to fill out and EVERY one of them requires me to write my name, address, phone number, email, DOB, etc. Com’on already!

    Oh, it’s such fun to rant sometimes!! =)

    1. With the medical offices, part of the problem is that they are always running behind. They want us to “fill out the paperwork” so it seems that we are the ones keeping them behind schedule, when in fact they are running 15-20 minutes behind schedule with each an every patient. It’s a head game, nonetheless. Just give me a Sudoko game or something to keep me busy. Nice post as always, Jamie! …bro


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