Excel Hell: We're All Burning but No One Realizes It
Friday, September 20, 2019
Ah, yes. Excel. That wonderful tool that is yielded like a sword by so many business professionals; its capabilities and functions learned and utilized religiously by all from college students to CEOs. For so many of us, nothing brings the same feeling of tranquility and control than a well-organized spreadsheet. And in all truth, the digital spreadsheet revolutionized business operations and has proven to be a powerful “weapon of choice” over the last few decades since its inception. But there is a dark side to this shiny golden child of the business world. While it has been bewitching us with its perfectly aligned cells and plethora of functions, it’s simultaneously been leading organizations, especially manufacturing organizations, to a troubling fate without their realizing it. Yes; if we only raise our heads from our gridlocked data, we will find that many of us are trapped in Excel Hell.
What is Excel Hell?
Definition: Over-reliance on spreadsheets in lieu of smarter tools that are at employees’ disposal.
Excel Hell is that place that organizations and teams find themselves where employees continue to use spreadsheets for tasks even when they have smarter, faster, and generally better tools at their disposal to do such tasks. According to Chad Smith and Debra Smith in their book titled Demand Driven Performance, 95% of organizations use spreadsheets to supplement ERP, making Excel Hell a popular place to be, especially for manufacturers.
How do we get trapped in Excel Hell?
In almost all cases, leadership teams spend a significant amount of time and money deciding on and purchasing ERP systems that should handle employees’ every need. Why, then, do team members continue to utilize spreadsheets in lieu of these powerful, efficient, and expensive programs? Like most phenomena, the reasons are varied:
The most widespread and classic reason: Humans are creatures of habit.
As anyone who has tried to implement new technology or tried to enact change in their organization knows, it is difficult to motivate individuals and teams to change their ways of doing things when they have been doing it that way for years (or worse: decades).
Employees don’t want to or can’t take the time to learn how to use ERP capabilities.
Related to the “creatures of habit” explanation, but more specific; even if employees are somewhat open to changing their ways, many find it difficult to find motivation or time in their day to learn new ways of doing things. They may logically understand the benefits of switching to a new program or tool but feel stressed about their ability to learn it and learn it quickly enough to not disrupt their work. This is where leadership comes in.
Leadership does not push training and adoption of software.
Because there can be so much natural aversion to software adoption, it is the responsibility of leadership to reinforce the importance and benefits of switching to new tools and provide the resources, opportunity, and freedom for employees to properly learn without having to feel stressed about sacrificing some time and attention during their day. When leaders are not as active in the adoption process, organizations often sink deeper into Excel Hell.
Employees believe spreadsheets are easier, quicker, or otherwise better than the ERP software.
The final reason is not due to nature or external factors. Simply, employees may not be interested in utilizing new tools. Many of us can understand the thought process: I’ve been doing it this way since I started at this company or in my career. It’s tried and true, I can do it quickly enough, and I see no problem with continuing my ways of doing things. Trying to switch to new tools would just be a waste of time. Also, what if these tools make me and my existing functions less valuable to the organization? This can be one of the more difficult reasons to overcome, but a failure to overcome it can lead to serious consequences for an organization.
Many ERPs are not being designed with modern, forward-thinking business in mind.
We’ll get to this later.
The “7 Levels” (or Most Common Outcomes) of Excel Hell
You may be thinking, “So what? What’s so bad about Excel Hell? Organizations have obviously been operating this way and utilizing spreadsheets to accomplish these tasks for a while. They’re doing fine – why change now?”
In reality, the risks and outcomes of continuing to live in Excel Hell are real, detrimental to organizations, and all too common. While these are varied, I will simplify by presenting the seven most common outcomes: The “7 Levels” of Excel Hell.
Wasted time and manpower
Perhaps one of the most obvious outcomes is wasted time and manpower. ERP capabilities are designed to save time and make employees’ lives easier, even if they don’t believe it. While learning and adoption can take an extra investment in time, the time savings employees experience afterward easily pay off. When organizations allow their employees to continue to live in Excel Hell, they are allowing them to consistently waste time doing things manually that an ERP tool could do more quickly.
Greater chance of human error
The studies are published and the consensus is clear: spreadsheets are riddled with errors. According to studies, 88% of spreadsheets (nearly 9 out of 10) contain errors. 1% of all formula cells contain errors. Yes, the beautiful spreadsheets that we all find so much peace and control in should probably be sparking more stress than tranquility in us. What’s worse is that these errors are largely human errors rather than technological errors caused by the software. So lies a significant truth in the reliance on spreadsheets as a supplement to ERP: organizations are opening themselves up to a greater incidence of human error, which history proves can be costly.
ERP programs are designed to keep data in a central location that is accessible by all stakeholders who require access. When employees utilize and work from spreadsheets outside of ERP, it creates a disconnect of information between individuals and teams. This siloed data keeps organizations from working collaboratively and in a well-informed manner.
Lower efficiency & organization
A related outcome of working from spreadsheets is the loss of efficiency and organization. Having multiple team members attempt to share and edit one spreadsheet can easily become a nightmare, especially if the spreadsheet is complex and contains mountains of data. One risks information being lost or accidentally compromised, as well as the possibility of multiple not-up-to-date versions being created and unknowingly utilized. Often, companies find themselves with a ridiculous number of spreadsheets with disparate information that are too overwhelming to manage.
Less powerful capabilities
ERP systems are smart. They are developed to be smart. And as much as we love creating complex spreadsheets with functions abound, they can never compete with the power of ERP programs. When employees continue to utilize spreadsheets in place of ERP systems’ capabilities, they and their organization are selling themselves short on the level of power and intelligence they can operate with.
Continuation of short-term vs long-term mindset
Most businesses struggle with balancing short-term needs with long-term vision. While we all understand the difficulty of this balance, in order to survive and rise as an organization, leadership and employees need to be dedicated to a long-term vision and take action toward that vision regularly. Excel Hell, though, is a perfect example of prioritizing short-term “needs” over long-term vision. When we get trapped in Excel Hell and its many spreadsheets, we sacrifice growth toward a long-term vision for comfort in the short-term. This mindset can be obstructive and can manifest itself in other actions and decisions that prevent your organization from reaching its full potential.
Keeps your organization working stagnantly
When your organization and team members are unable to remove themselves from the downward, spreadsheet-filled spiral that is Excel Hell, it renders your business unable to grow and improve with changes in business needs and the evolution of industry and technology. Sticking to the status quo leaves little room to grow, and in order to be competitive in the long-term, organizations must find a way out of Excel Hell.
The Truth About Excel Hell and the Problem with ERP
Here’s the truth about Excel Hell: it’s not just a result of the mindset and actions of your employees and organization.
Most organizations are aware of the causes and outcomes of Excel Hell, yet find themselves stuck there anyway; so, what’s the deal? Truthfully, many ERP programs are not designed with modern, forward-thinking business in mind. They are designed around outdated mindsets and practices that set up organizations for failure when implementing their tools. The bright side? A few solutions are indeed designed with your business and its brilliant future in mind. One of those solutions is Revive, a manufacturing software created by Repathis. When you pair a well-designed ERP system like Revive with an understanding of the pitfalls outlined above regarding Excel Hell, the opportunities for long-term success are limitless.