RPA: Your new cyber sidekick?

By Jake Joy DLA Disposition Services Public Affairs

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An Army unit delivers a shipping container filled with excess property. The DLA Disposition Services field site begins scanning discarded inventory for possible reuse. The property disposal specialist working the load simultaneously engages a virtual automation that logs in and starts combing military supply databases – just like a human user – to determine if other units have any of those items on a want list. Within minutes, the automation navigates a complex haystack to discover an Air Force command that desperately needs a part DLA just received. It triggers a system warning, letting the disposal specialist know that an item just scanned is a high priority request. The specialist sets it aside and finishes processing the remaining items for regular customer screening.

Such is the promise of Robotic Process Automation.

DLA Disposition Services hosted its first Robotic Process Automation Workshop at command headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, in October. Agency RPA team representatives provided a concept orientation and helped attendees understand that robotic automation is something totally separate from artificial intelligence or machine learning.

One team member asked attendees to consider some of the types of low-hanging, easy entry-level tasks they would typically give to a new employee, using programs like DSS, Microsoft Office, Explorer or Adobe. The team explained how a well-built automation can easily handle those types of simple, rule-based, repetitive jobs and how all the things an employee can touch, click on and manipulate on their computer, an automation can as well. They said if there’s a site or a program that a federal employee can access with a security credential within the DLA network, an automation can, too.

The team explained how DLA first developed interest in RPA in 2017. DLA leadership green-lit select pilot projects, liked the results, and more fully embraced RPA as a process improvement tool in mid-2018. Since then, more than 50 automations have been completed, with another 60 or so in the queue and a handful currently under construction by the team at any time.

Attendees learned about important criteria used in the selection of an automation build, including consideration of how many man hours it might save, whether it’s expandable to other users, whether it makes the Agency more auditable, whether it directly contributes to DLA’s established lines of effort and how closely it supports the director’s strategic intent.

One team member described RPA as “a workforce multiplier, available 24/7, programmed to do the exact same thing every time, regardless of situation or circumstance.”

Team reps also shared video demonstrations of successful automation builds and provided guidance on how an employee with an idea should populate the agency’s standard RPA recommendation questionnaire. DLA Disposition Services Director Mike Cannon dropped in on the workshop and chatted with training attendees about some of their ideas and RPA’s wide-ranging appeal.

“This has got a lot of potential,” Cannon said. “It’s a powerful tool. We’ve got to use it smartly.”

DLA Disposition Services Business Applications and Documents Branch Chief Angie Wilbur sat in on the workshop. She is Disposition Services’ point person for gaining consideration for automation ideas as its representative within the agency’s RPA Steering Committee. She provided some insight into how those ideas get vetted for development.

“The RPA Steering Committee meets every two weeks to review and discuss new RPA use cases, review their provided Quantitative Business Impact and rank them in priority order based on factors like QBI and financial impact, improving audit readiness, and senior leadership direction,” Wilbur said. “Going through the use cases in this manner gives each major sub-command and directorate an opportunity to expand upon ideas for use within other areas or possibly spark new ideas. The prioritized list is then reviewed by the Enterprise Operations Planning Council at DLA headquarters before use cases are moved into the ‘In Process’ phase.”

For Disposition Services employees interested in learning more about RPA or in how to submit an idea for an automation build, information requests can be emailed to DLA Disposition Services System Sustainment at DispSvcsSystemSustainment@dla.mil. Questions for the enterprise RPA Team can be emailed to DLA.EnterpriseRPA@dla.mil.