America’s oldest denim brand is betting on decidedly new technology.
“To further the company’s digital transformation, we are deepening our investment in and prioritization of digital capabilities across all aspects of the business,” Mark Cazares, Levi’s senior manager of media relations, wrote in a blog post. The San Francisco company will embed digital, data and AI technology into job functions enterprise-wide, with a goal of saving 20,000 man hours each year.
RPA has taken off in recent years, Cazares added, noting that Gartner research projects that 90 percent of businesses will incorporate bot-driven automated processes this year. Levi’s implemented an RPA Center of Excellence (COE) team tasked with collaborating with different departments across the organization to identify opportunities for technological intervention. COE aims to create individualized solutions for Levi’s teams that are scalable throughout the business.
“For a company to truly transform digitally, we must approach it from all angles,” chief financial officer Harmit Singh said, noting that Levi’s is working to ensure that teams across functions are empowered to work with a “digital first” mindset. The integration of RPA technology has resulted in “an immediate reduction in operational costs,” as well as “increased employee satisfaction as teams can focus on higher-value activities.”
“While RPA is common among tech and digital-native companies, it’s just beginning in the retail industry,” Singh said. “It’s investments in services like RPA that keep us at the forefront of the industry.”
While the company first started with RPA in 2017, Levi’s began to meaningfully scale solutions with two pilots that launched in February 2021.
The first digitized the process of invoicing wholesale partners for Levi’s teams in New Zealand and Australia, which were accustomed to manually downloading and emailing statements to more than 700 regional retail partners. The process once took days to finish, with each invoice averaging about five minutes of attention from a human worker. A bot was developed to automate the sequence of downloading and attaching individual PDF statements, Levi’s said. Since it was deployed a year ago, the tool has saved more than 500 hours of manual work.
The second bot launch was developed to help merchandise coordinators across North America enter more than 4,000 seasonal products into their systems—a time-consuming process that could take multiple days spread across five people. One automated bot saved the team almost 750 hours, Levi’s said, while eliminating the human errors that accompany manual data entry. Merchandise coordinator Victoria Anderson said that the technology allowed her to turn her attention to more high-level tasks like analyzing assortment performance and presenting those findings to leadership.
Since these pilot programs were launched, Levi’s said teams across the company have enthusiastically embraced the prospect of bots joining their ranks. The COE team developed a pipeline of about 50 new bots to be deployed this year—a goal that the company expects will save employees more than 20,000 hours of work.
“We’ve gone from testing and launching a few bots to fielding over 50 new ideas for bots from our employees around the world,” Stacie Clarkson, senior director of process transformation and global business services governance, said. As leader of the RPA COE, Clarkson noted “a noticeable shift in engagement this past year as employees see the value” of the program. “For a 169-year-old company, it’s fun to see us look more like a tech company as we embrace this digital transformation journey,” she added.
The purchase order (PO) closure bot is set to roll out this year to automate the process of closing out orders—a process usually managed by the finance team, Clarkson said. Vendor orders have POs attached, and at the end of each fiscal year, Levi’s is often left with thousands of orders that have not been closed. Resolving PO confusion can require multiple emails between internal teams and vendors, while open, unconfirmed orders can impede a company’s understanding of its overall financial standing. The bot will allow the finance team to reconcile POs on a quarterly basis instead of annually, automating correspondence and closing out orders once they’ve been addressed.
Looking beyond 2022, the COE team plans to embed sensors in employees’ computers to better understand how they work, using machine learning to identify how processes are completed by individual employees. Teams will be equipped with this data following the exercise, which Levi’s believes will give them an opportunity to optimize and speed up their operations.
“Our work with RPA is just the latest example of our company’s culture of innovation,” Cazares wrote. “RPA offers a way for us to create standardization and common processes rooted in automation across the company, ultimately changing how we work.”