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3 Reasons Why Spreadsheets Are Destroying Your Business

Mar 4, 2022 | By Steven Burns, FAIA | 0 Comments

Topics: Financial Health

Everyone loves a great spreadsheet!    

OK, maybe not everyone, but if you’re involved with managing a business or a project, you can appreciate the humor. It’s amazing what one can do with spreadsheets.   

I once visited a 24-person architectural firm where the office manager had created a spreadsheet with over 60 worksheets and linked to three other spreadsheets. It was abundant with admirable macros and more colors than a Vermont forest in October. It really was a wondrous thing to behold.  

Be that as it may, nearly a year later, I received a call from the owner of that firm asking for help. The office manager had left (probably to work for Rube Goldberg), and no one else in the company understood how to work with her spreadsheet. All the information that this colossal spreadsheet had provided had only a single person that knew how to use it and the necessary temperament to manage it. And that person was gone.  

This story may sound unique, but it really exemplifies the problem firms put themselves in when using spreadsheets to manage normal business functions. If your firm uses spreadsheets for any regular business activities, you are not only making your life more difficult, but you are also doing your firm a disservice.  

Let me share 3 problems spreadsheets pose: 

#3: SPREADSHEETS ARE INEFFICIENT 

There’s a famous and generally beloved quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. With all due respect to old Abe, I don’t have six hours. I need it now. And, if you would just keep your damn axe sharp, you could cut that tree down in 2 hours and not make me sit around waiting 4 frustrating hours while you sharpen your tool.  

To be fair, Abe said that about 173 years ago, when the world was a very different place. Today, it’s probably politically incorrect to even reference cutting down trees. And secondly, who uses an axe? Today, if someone in your office asked, “how much have we spent working on the Acme project”, I wouldn’t want your response to be, “give me 6 hours,” and then have you run off and fine-tune some spreadsheet for 4 of them.  

As we all know, today, business runs at the speed of thought. Therefore, so much has been invested in business and artificial intelligence over the past decade. Every hour spent working on a project with a spreadsheet is like 2 hours lost. It takes time away from someone who must work on that document while simultaneously delaying the delivery of the information for the person who requires it.  

I’m not saying spreadsheets don’t have their place. If your firm is looking to analyze something unusual, or just working out some business ideas – where you need to be spit-balling and flexible, a spreadsheet is just fine. But, once you realize the benefit of the document, the value of the data, and the advantage of having the information presented in a particular format – that should be the signal that you need to turn it into a report that your business intelligence tools can create for you automatically, on-demand or on a defined schedule.   

This is the reason firms should stop wasting people’s valuable time by throwing it away at work that should be automated.   

#2: SPREADSHEETS LIE 

Maybe that title is a bit harsh. But, if spreadsheets don’t lie, then at least they don’t really tell the truth. Give me enough time, and I’ll find mistakes in your spreadsheet. Maybe it was a calculated field that didn’t include all the data. Perhaps you inserted some data somewhere and the calculated field didn’t get updated to include those new rows.   

Or maybe you were working on some spreadsheet and realized you were missing some information from a coworker. So, you shout across the room to your colleague “Hey Janet, how many hours did you work last week on the Acme project.” After Janet asks you not to shout at her, she replies “Hmmmm, I think I worked 23 hours on Acme last week.”   

With that information, you go to the proper cell in your spreadsheet and enter “32”.   

What’s wrong? Well, first, Janet was right, it’s not polite to shout at your coworkers, even when asking them for some information. Secondly, she had to think about her hours and just threw a number at you. What was that number? It was “23”. How did she come up with it? Maybe she was looking at a paper timecard and did bad math. Maybe she was trying to reconstruct her time last week and forgot that she took off Wednesday afternoon because her dog needed to be picked up from his monthly grooming. So, she thought she spent 6 hours that day when really it was only 4.5. And lastly, you entered “32” in your spreadsheet, not “23” because you accidentally transposed the numbers.  

There are so many ways that things can go wrong when working with spreadsheets and those are just a couple of examples. The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” was never more appropriate than when firms use spreadsheets for critical and repetitive business functions.  

The last thing I want to say on this topic has to do with the implicit bias of the person building the spreadsheet. If you asked Jason to get you a report on the profitability of his projects, and he did this with a spreadsheet, I can guarantee that his projects will be impressively profitable. At least more profitable than if you asked Janet to provide the very same report on Jason’s projects.  

How do you remove the ego from the information presented in a spreadsheet? By removing the human. Don’t worry, it’s not like I’m Tony Soprano. Before I share with you how to achieve that, I want to give you my final reason why spreadsheets are destroying your business.   

#1: BAD NEWS SHOULDN’T WAIT 

I’m sure you’re familiar with the oft-repeated phrase “real-time”. If you’re using navigation software in your car, you’ll understand that having real-time traffic information is invaluable. How very different your journey is when you know that there’s a traffic jam 10 miles down the highway but if you get off at the next exit, you can bypass it and save 15 minutes.  

Who wants a weekly readout from their gas tank regarding the amount of fuel remaining? If you’re a pilot, not having real-time information about the amount of fuel left could become a matter of life and death.  

In certain cities around the world, we now get real-time information about the arriving train or bus. Only a decade ago, you had a schedule that told you the bus stops at your corner every 30 minutes: at 12 and 42 minutes past the hour. So, you walk to the bus stop and get there a responsible 2 minutes before the 8:12 am bus is scheduled to arrive. Guess what? That bus was uncharacteristically early (by 4 minutes), and the next bus is stuck in traffic and will be 33 minutes late (arriving at 9:15). Now, you’re stuck waiting in the rain for an hour and 15 minutes. That’s how the world worked only a decade ago. Today, I can see the real-time location of all the busses serving my route using a mobile app. Knowing precisely when it will arrive means I can plan my time more efficiently and not get drenched!  

When it comes to your business, you need dashboards of your critical business data. Don’t expect someone in your office to take days to produce a report that finally explains the Acme project is now $5,000 over budget. Actually, the project is now $6,000 over budget because by the time that report was created and the time you finally got around to realizing the bad news, your staff continued to work on it and pile up another $1,000 in costs that won’t be recouped.  

It doesn’t matter if it’s about your health or your business health. If there’s bad news, the sooner you learn about it the higher the probability that you will be able to positively affect the outcome.  

SAVE TIME AND PREVENT ERRORS WITH BQE CORE 

Every firm, regardless of size, should optimize its business processes. Implementing software like BQE CORE will ensure that your firm is receiving information in real-time; no people are wasting their valuable time gathering data, collating it, and making it presentable in a report so they or someone else can decide.  

The software knows which reports and metrics people need and can automatically deliver the information to them on the days of the week and times of the day that make the most sense for them.   

BQE CORE empowers every employee in the firm by providing dashboards that display the real-time information they need to know without inconveniencing anyone. They can rely on this data as being accurate. They can be more productive with their work, bring more profit to the firm, and be happier in the work they do.   

And, best of all, no one ever needs to call me to help them get organized because some bone-headed ex-employee created the world’s most complex, incompressible spreadsheet that is unusable.  

Try a free demo of BQE CORE today and see just how much easier your life can be once you step away from the spreadsheets and start saving your precious hours! 

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The Author

Steven Burns, FAIA

Steven Burns, FAIA, spent 14 years managing his firm Burns + Beyerl Architects. After creating ArchiOffice®, the smart office and project management solution for architectural firms, Steve brought his management expertise to BQE Software, where he is perfecting the business strategy and product development.

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