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ZINNOV PODCAST   |   Intelligent Automation

Everyday Problem-Solving: Fundamentals To Innovate and Automate

Marilyn Krichko
Marilyn Krichko Automation Leader Spectrum Brands

It is undeniable that Automation, as a concept, holds the potential to be the base for a majority of the innovation that is to happen in the coming years. But as enterprises adopt new technologies, it becomes crucial for them to adapt to the new business realities.

In this episode of the Hyper Intelligent Automation Series, catch Marilyn Krichko, who is an Automation Leader at Spectrum Brands, in conversation with Nischay Mittal, Global Head – Automation/AI at Zinnov talk about all things automation, including her journey in the world of automation – which all started with her looking to make her own desk job simpler. Marilyn also shares with the audience her top 10 advice she has for anybody who has just started out on their automation journey.


Nischay Mittal: Hello, and welcome to an all new episode of the Zinnov podcast. Hyper-Intelligent Automation series. I’m Nischay Mittal, Principal and Global Head of Automation at Zinnov and I will be your host for today. Today we have with us someone who’s had a very interesting career spanning over two-and-a-half decades working across diverse set of industries, such as banking, manufacturing, pharma, including working with some of the leading tech majors, such as Microsoft and currently working with Spectrum Brands.

Nischay Mittal: Please welcome Marilyn Krichko, who is currently spearheading the automation practice at Spectrum Brands and has truly taken the automation story to new heights in her current role. And besides automation, Marilyn is also deeply passionate about rowing and is also the founder for the team building company, The Rowers’ Code. A very warm welcome to you Marilyn, excited to host you today.

Marilyn Krichko: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.

Nischay Mittal: So without much further ado, let’s jump right in. So Marilyn, as we discussed, you’ve had a very accomplished career so far. Can you briefly walk us through your journey so far and how your tryst with automation came about?

Marilyn Krichko: Yeah. So I feel a little guilty about it because I started my career at the Federal Reserve Bank. When I was working at the Federal Reserve Bank, I was responsible for Fed deposits. And every day, a lot of our banking customers would call us on the phone, right. So our phones would be ringing off the hook and they would want to know how much they had in their Fed deposit. And they would ask us various questions. And so one day, I was sitting at my desk and I thought, wouldn’t it be really nice if they could call in and just push a number on their telephone or dial a number or something, and it would give them the amount of their Fed deposit. And so that really irritating system that exists today when you call a phone number and it says, press one for this, press two, for that press three, you know, now it goes all the way up to about nine started with the Federal Reserve Bank. And sometimes I feel really guilty, because I also find it really frustrating when I call somewhere and I can’t talk to a person. So that was my first introduction to automation. We didn’t invent it. Of course, another system invented that or another company invented that. But it was my first, um, part of my automation journey.

Then I went to work in the paper industry and I was a sales person. And the mill that we were working with kept asking all the salespeople, why aren’t you selling more paper? You know, why aren’t you salespeople doing a better job? And I went up to one of our paper mills in Canada. And when I walked into the warehouse, there was tons of paper everywhere. And so I realized there was an issue with the system. They thought we weren’t doing enough to sell paper and we couldn’t see that there was paper to sell in the system. And that’s what got me again, started on a new automation journey.

Then I went to work at Microsoft. I was at a few different companies in between that, but I went to work at Microsoft and I ended up working in modern IT, and the goal of modern IT at that time was to make things easier for people. And that was really interesting being at Microsoft. There are a lot of smart people there. They have a lot of technology, a lot of things going on. And I had an opportunity to sit right in the middle of that and interact with business users and with the people who were creating technology. And finally, five years ago, we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and I had the opportunity to join Spectrum Brands and run the automation team.

Nischay Mittal: Wow! This has truly been an incredible journey, Marilyn, how you overcame several process inefficiencies in your earlier jobs. From our earlier discussions, Marilyn, it is very evident that you have a very keen interest for rowing. Can you shed some light on how you’re leveraging your passion for rowing in the automation space?

Marilyn Krichko: Yes. Thank you. So one night I was walking around the block and I was thinking, you know, this is automation stuff. It’s so new to everyone in our company. Most IT teams don’t do enough change management. And I was thinking, how could I reach out to my stakeholders and help them understand what we’re trying to do and help them understand this new process. The new process for us wasn’t just around automation. It was around using agile. Going away from the waterfall model that we were also used to, and then trying this new agile model while we were introducing new technology.

So it was walking around the block and I was thinking about a rowing race. Rowing races are so exciting. You walk down to the dock with your boat, you put it in the water, someone’s holding your boat while you’re getting ready to start. There’s just all this excitement and passion. And then all of a sudden, to start the race they yell ‘Ready! All row’, and the gun goes off and your race takes off. And I thought, I wish I could use that somehow with automation, so people understand it’s just ready. And then I thought of it. I thought of Ready, Dev, Go! ‘Go’ as in go-live. And that’s when I created the Ready-Dev-Go model.

Nischay Mittal: Wonderful. So I truly love this. Ready-Dev-Go philosophy that you’ve imbibed within your automation practice. You mentioned that this philosophy was really aligned very closely to this whole change management aspect, which is a key facet of any automation program. As you started your automation journey, Marilyn, what were some of the other key challenges that you faced? In hindsight, if you were to go back in time, what are the three things you would have done differently in order to alleviate those challenges?

Marilyn Krichko: Yeah, I think that the first thing that I would have done is I would have picked a governance committee that was a little smaller than my initial committee. So when I was first getting started, I got a lot of advice from people about, you need to involve this person in this, you need to involve that vice-president, you need to involve this person cause they’re new. So I got all this advice and I wanted to do a really great job and I wanted to listen to my stakeholders.

So we had quite a large governance committee. So I think the first thing you need to decide is, where are you in your automation journey? And if you’re setting up new technology, find a core small group of people. And I would say probably not more than, if you’re a small company, three people. If you’re a larger company like our company, not more than five people and then figure out what do you really want to accomplish during your governance meeting? What’s the purpose of your governance? Is the purpose of your governance to help you decide the right automation? Is the purpose of your governance committee to help you prioritize those? What are they really supposed to do? And then what process are you going to use? Are you going to have a fast track process where you could do everything via email?

Do you want to meet via Teams or Zoom or whatever process you use for any kind of online meetings? Or do you want to meet in person? How long do you want those meetings to be? So really setting up a robust governance process… The people that you pick in governance should be people who have experience across the organization, but they also need to be able to make decisions quickly.

So one mistake that I made upfront is I had one person on my committee. So it just took them a long time to make decisions. And so it kept holding us up and I realized that’s not that person’s fault. It’s our process. So I need to change and explain the process better, so they understand the purpose during this meeting is to do acts, it’s to make these decisions.

I think the second thing that I would have done differently is that I would not have used a list that other people generated for me to follow-up on. So I came into the process just a little bit late after some consultants did at our company. And they gave me a list of a 100 and some things that we should automate. And so I took that list and started to reach out to those stakeholders to verify it. And I don’t think that was the best approach. I think if you’re new to automation, the first thing that you want to do is start with something small. And if you have something on a list and you know it’s small, then sure follow-up on that. But I think instead, maybe look within your own IT team if you’re setting up automation within IT. Go around your peers and find something that’s small to start with, and that lets your people get some experience.

And then I think the third thing that I learned, that’s kind of a funny thing is that I would, that I do this today and I will do it for the rest of my automation life, and it’s never go-live on a Friday. It’s a bad thing to do to your team. Bad thing to do to your stakeholders, especially if you’re newer in your automation journey. If you go-live on a Friday and something goes wrong and you have to red hat a bug or some kind of error that’s happening, it kind of ruins everyone’s weekends.

So we have that rule on my team today. Never go-live on a Friday.

Nischay Mittal: Great! Great insights. Just to add, I think the other key component that we keep hearing from our customers is also around this whole technology decisioning. Because if you look at automation, it’s become far more complex and it’s today almost like a confluence of multiple technologies. So you have RPA, then we have low code/no code, API integration, process mining, IBP among a lot of other technology areas. So what’s your take on this confluence of multiple automation technologies that are coming in and how easy or difficult do you think it is to navigate this technology puzzle for an enterprise?

Marilyn Krichko: Yeah, I think this is really interesting and it’s one of our biggest challenges. Because when you listen to what people say about automation today, they will say that all these things fit together. And you could just get this little add in, or you could use an app here or get a little component there.

And actually it’s quite complex. They don’t all play well together. It’s complicated and it takes a lot of coding to solve for errors. One of the errors that we have sometimes is it takes some things longer to process than others. So you have to build in some time into your code.

And what we felt is, at first that we could design these really cool things where we could link a bunch of these technologies together, but they break. And so you have to really think through that and think, how do all these different technologies work and do we need them all?

So on my team today, we use basically two automation technologies. We started with three, but we found that one of them wasn’t stable enough and it’s not true automation. And it was just breaking too much. It was eating up too much of our time. So I think the thing to do is, pick a technology that’s very stable and that might be difficult. If you’re a smaller organization, you might not be able to afford some of this more expensive technology.

So it can be a challenge for you, but I have to say that you get what you pay for. And so in our case, we decided that we needed something very stable, something very robust, and it does come at a cost, but I believe it’s well worth it. So really look to your future. Like sometimes, I’ve spoken to a couple of companies where they told me that in the case of the technology that we use, we use UiPath, and they didn’t want to buy an enterprise solution.

And so they were using the solution, I guess, that they could download online. And when I asked them how many tech, or sorry, how many automations they actually completed during their last couple of years, they had never really completed anything. And it was because they didn’t have or invest in the technology they needed to deal with their own system.

So they needed an enterprise solution, but they weren’t willing to invest in an enterprise solution. In our case, we did do that. And so our UiPath technology works very well with our internal technology. And we’re a little bit lucky because it’s also playing very well with the other automation technology that we bought.

So really think about it. When you’re looking at the price of things, sometimes it could feel a little scary, but I have to say it’s actually worth it.

Nischay Mittal: Okay. So I think if I were to advise a smaller enterprise starting on an automation journey, I think the advice would be to pick a technology, which is stable, robust, integrate very well with the existing enterprise apps and something of course, which can generate returns in the future for the enterprise. That makes sense. And Marilyn, I also wanted to shift gears a bit and talk about the Center of Excellence aspect, which is probably the most talked about aspects when you talk about automation today. We understand that you have set up a dedicated automation COE at Spectrum Brands and it’s been very successful.

If we zoom out and look at the Fortune 250 enterprises overall, our research shows that more than 90% of the enterprises have already invested in automation and they’re doing it in a meaningful fashion today. However, only about 40% of these enterprises today have a dedicated automation COE in place.

Given that the majority of enterprises are really running their automation initiatives without a formal COE in place, how important do you really think it is to set up a COE and can an enterprise build a successful automation program even without a COE, in your advice?.

Marilyn Krichko: I think you have to have a COE, you know, your Center of Excellence should be where you strategize, where you manage your automations, where you operate, where you update.

So to me, a center of excellence is where everything starts. It helps you establish your process. When I talked about our Ready-Dev-Go process, we run that through our Center of Excellence. That’s where we share all of our information. That’s where people understand what we’re really trying to accomplish as a team, short-term and long-term. It helps them understand which systems we support.

We talk a lot about the automations that we’ve completed so people can go to, we actually have a site called Automation Central and that’s where we share all the information around our Center of Excellence. It helps people understand the automations that we’ve already completed, so they know we can work with that technology.

It helps them understand our development model. So of course, we’re a really large company, so we’ve had the business, while they’re working on issues, they’re solving globally. Sometimes they’ll engage with other companies who tell them, ‘Oh, you should automate this. And here’s how you should.’.

Our Center of Excellence helps everyone understand that we have a centralized model and that they need to come to us to understand our process and how our systems work. We’ve actually had people in other places suggest that they should stand up a separate UiPath Orchestrator when we already have one.

So our Center of Excellence also saves our company. Yeah, it was very easy. Then for someone to reach out to us to say, ‘Hey, this company is suggesting we use this technology and that we do it this way.’. And I said, actually, we already have that set up. Here’s how we work today. So it’s a great communication channel for people to understand our process.

It also helps people understand what good candidates for automation are versus bad candidates. We give people that information in our Center of Excellence. So people don’t start looking at qutomations that will help individuals. And instead, it helps them look for automations that will help an entire business unit.

So it helps people prioritize and look at automation the right way. So I think everyone needs a Center of Excellence. I think if you don’t have one you could end up wasting a lot of time, you can waste money, and it could be a really rough journey. So talk about rowing, right? You can row on calm water to me, that’s having a Center of Excellence and a really clear plan, or you could decide to row your boat out into a bunch of fog and really choppy water.

And it’s up to you. And I think a Center of Excellence is like a good start. It’s like having a plan and a good start and a set of established processes that help people know where they want to go and how you want to do.

Nischay Mittal: Again, I love the rowing corollary that you’ve drawn, Marilyn. So we understand it’s imperative for an enterprise to build an automation COE for a more structured program in place. Interestingly, Marilyn you’ve also touched upon two important aspects. I’ll dive into the first one first and then revisit the other one in a moment’s time. But, you spoke about having built a centralized governance model for your COE at Spectrum. As we are aware there are multiple governance models that enterprises are leveraging today for setting up the Centers of Excellences. The popular belief in the industry, and this is coming from a lot of primary interactions we’ve had, I think the popular belief is that, you know, you can start with a decentralized model or a centralized model, but eventually I think, there is this gravitation towards a federated COE model that is generally practiced in the industry. And, people feel that this federated model is superior and has more advantages compared to some of the other models. So what are your thoughts on that, Marilyn? Do you agree or disagree with this notion?

Marilyn Krichko: I totally disagree with it a 100 percent and the reason why I disagree with it is because to me, with a federated model, everyone’s not necessarily on the same page.

So what we have happening is that people have a lot of different ways of looking at things. And if we don’t use a centralized model at our company, what we end up doing is wasting time and resources and things spin out of control and so for us, a centralized model works really well because it gets everyone on the same page. And I don’t know if other people feel the same way. So I’m disagreeing based on my own experience. I may or may not be right about that. But what I do know is that whenever we start going towards a more federated model, things seem to fall apart really quickly and stakeholders… So not fall apart quickly from an IT standpoint, but our stakeholders seem to get really confused about where are we going? What are we doing? What’s next? How are we prioritizing? How does this really work? And it has just caused a lot of confusion. And to me, it’s not worth the change management to try to help everyone understand. So that’s why we use a centralized model. It’s just a lot easier for us.

Nischay Mittal: And probably this is also a function of the size of the enterprise, Marilyn, given that Spectrum Brands is a huge conglomerate, probably that’s why the federated model may not be as effective as compared to a centralized model that you currently have.

Marilyn Krichko: It could be. Yeah. I don’t know, you know, from experience, I haven’t had that experience yet, so I can’t really speak to that. But what I would encourage people do is really start with the end in mind. So think about what are you really trying to accomplish? What are the issues that you’re trying to solve? Where are you going? At the end of the day, where do you want to go? How can you accomplish that with the easiest journey?

Don’t make it hard on yourself. So think through your processes, and if you use a federated model, what processes do we have to put in place so that we keep everyone aligned? And if we use a centralized model, what processes do we have to put in place to make that work as well? So, look at your automation journey and think this is a journey. This isn’t a one-time decision.

Also things can change, right? So if you’re today using a federated model, and you’re not happy with it, that can change. It’ll take some time and effort to change something you’ve already started, but you can change. And if you’re using a centralized model and that’s not working for you, that can change as well.

So nothing with automation needs to be set in stone. I think that’s a good thing to know because automation is a journey. We’re all just learning and growing and technology is changing all the time. So, you know, perhaps in the future, maybe you’ll talk to me in a few years and you’ll ask me, how’s it going with your centralized model? And perhaps that’ll change in a few years. I don’t know.

Nischay Mittal: I think very astute observations, Marilyn. So we have to be flexible in the model. Of course, we may evolve from a centralized to federated or vice versa, so yeah, it’s not set in stone, so absolutely makes sense.

Marilyn Krichko: Yep.

Nischay Mittal: I think you also touched upon the other very critical aspect around process discovery. So as you look towards the next 12 to 24 months, what are the three areas within automation that you are personally the most excited about?

Marilyn Krichko: I think that I’m most excited about supply chain. When you look at what’s happening around the globe in the whole supply chain arena, things are changing really rapidly. And so I think that that area is ripe for automation. I also think manufacturing, because supply chain is changing, manufacturing is changing.

So I think that that’s right for automation. And then, because those two things are changing of course, sales and the way things work today, that whole environment is changing.

Nischay Mittal: So supply chain, manufacturing, and sales are the three most pertinent things that you’re excited about. So any final words of advice that you would want to leave an audience with, especially the ones who are just getting started with their automation journeys?

Marilyn Krichko: Yeah. So I do have some final advice, and actually I have a Top 10 list. so I’m gonna run through my ten key things, so I’ll run through them really quickly. So first is make sure you have a process in place that everyone can understand, that will jumpstart your success. So for us, it’s the Ready-Dev-Go model. Remember that one technology, probably, won’t solve all of your businesses.

The next one is that agile works really well when you’re trying to gain momentum and sell business stakeholders this whole idea of automation. So if you’re using a waterfall approach today, be open to agile.

And the number four is the right team matters. Build a roadmap and share your progress. So build a little roadmap, even if you’re just getting started, decide like maybe this year we could do three things. What will the three things do and then go and share your progress and advertise that.

Another one keep your assets organized. It’s essential for usability. Number seven is start small, starting small will allow your team members to grow their skills. It’ll also allow the business to get used to what you’re doing. Number eight is stick with your process. Governance is key. So stay ahead of compliance and SOX. Number nine is keep iterating your process. We use Start, Stop, Continue on our team. So we ask each other, what should we start doing that we’re not doing today that will help us in the future? What should we stop doing that’s hurting us? And what should we continue doing that’s made us successful so far?

And then the last thing is if you’re a leader in automation today, lead by example.

Nischay Mittal: Thanks for sharing your ten mantras for successful automation. This was an extremely insightful conversation, Marilyn, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m sure our audience would have a lot of great takeaways from all that you shared. Once again, thank you so much for taking out time to be here with us today, and thank you everyone for tuning into this episode of the Zinnov podcast Hyper-Intelligent Automation series, we will be back soon with another episode, with another leader till then take care and stay safe.

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