So, you’re a small contractor and you’ve relied on Excel for a long time. It’s in every aspect of your business. You do your accounting with it, you use it for estimating, and you have it involved in project planning and project management.
It is so well entrenched that the thought of moving on seems too daunting. Just consider though that for every month you wait to adopt tools that overcome spreadsheet dangers, you are becoming less and less qualified to compete.
In fact, if you think your spreadsheets are accurate, you are probably deceiving yourself.
Multiple sources put the error rate in spreadsheets at 80% or more, with one claiming the error rate is actually closer to 90%. And, here’s why...
- Because spreadsheets are not databases they can’t be updated by more than one person at a time, the data they contain can’t be audited, they don’t allow for a formal workflow, and have little security or controls over mistakes.
- Spreadsheets are simple enough for almost anyone to use, deceiving everyone into quickly believing they are spreadsheet masters.
- Users usually have no training in how to include controls and checks. Multinational pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, accidentally released confidential information to analysts in 2011 when the information was inadvertently embedded in a spreadsheet template.
- Multiple versions of spreadsheets, and linked spreadsheets almost guarantee someone is using the wrong information. An incorrectly linked spreadsheet at a Tennessee government agency caused a $6 million error and a $12,500 audit fee.
- Spreadsheets severely limit your ability to take advantage of new technologies that process and analyze multiple types of data.
In 2012, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co lost an estimated $6.2 billion in the infamous “London Whale” case. The investigating task force named the following spreadsheet issues as contributing factors:
- Not properly vetted
- Error prone
- Calculations done with poor controls that had frequent formula and code changes
- People copying and pasting data between spreadsheets
- A spreadsheet error that hid a one day, $400 million loss
- A spreadsheet cell allowing users to switch between two different modeling techniques
- A spreadsheet cell that was dividing a result instead of averaging.
So you’ve heard all the reasons why you shouldn’t be using spreadsheets as your main computing solution.
But how do you break free?
- Commit to jumping ship. This might sound like a simple step, but it really isn’t, and that’s because of two requirements—investment and change. You already have a lot invested in your spreadsheet empire. A logical way to overcome the roadblock of past investment is to consider it a business expense.
- Investigate. It’s very common for construction firms to use spreadsheets for estimating, accounting, billing, and budgeting. Some also use them for project timelines and for other scheduling tasks. You need to know all the places spreadsheets are being used and for what purposes. Once you have that list, you can formulate a plan for migrating away from spreadsheets.
- Scope it Out. It’s often wise to make changes gradually, especially when many people are involved. Map out where people use spreadsheets for business and project-critical purposes. Then, look at spreadsheet use that feeds those purposes. For example, an estimator might do estimating with a spreadsheet, but the estimating process is fed data from a different spreadsheet tracking material and labor costs. Instead of trying to step away from spreadsheets for estimating, it might be better to simply convert the process to one that uses an estimating program or application.
- Plan for Pain Management. Be very aware of how these changes will affect people. Assess where you’ll get resistance and plan for how to prevent or mitigate it. Plan to have multiple communications that explain what’s happening. Ask for, and consider employee input. Getting buy-in will carry your effort far with less wasted energy. Be prepared to show what the changes will mean in terms of workload, both during and after the transition. Report on the results of transitions as they happen. Have contingency plans for areas with the greatest possibility of problems.
- Plan to Track Results. Think about all the ways you can see measurable results from the transition. Select the results that will provide hard numbers and make their tracking a priority. But, don’t overlook smaller advantages. If superintendents can report more time available for jobsite observations, that’s a plus. If administrative people feel less stress because there are fewer errors arising from repetitive data input, that’s also a plus!
- Use the Feedback Loop. You will have no shortage of complaints and ideas coming from the people who must give up their spreadsheet dependence. Listen and listen well. Ask for suggestions. There are no doubt some simple aspects of your business where spreadsheets fit well, and perform as they should––such as basic math tasks and some quick analytics that don’t feed into larger computations are two. The ultimate goal is to use spreadsheets for tasks that fit their purpose, and to use the best solution available for all other purposes.