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Excel Entropy – Another Chapter from Microsoft Mania

The Problem

Here is a common business problem that I have seen develop in every (no exceptions) business and organization that I have worked with over the past 12 years. I like to call it Excel Entropy if only to keep the alliterations constant as I work on another post called ‘The Folder Forest’ and others to come, all of which are on the topic of how complexity often grows into a beast for organizations using Microsoft Office as their main enterprise application.

First off I should mention that I am a big fan of the Microsoft Office suite; the applications are amazing tools but when used, let’s call it ‘less than optimally’, many hours of extra work is often created.

Excel entropy occurs something like this; a manager asks one of his/her direct reports or an assistant to gather some data to produce a report or set of charts for a presentation he/she needs to do. (Now I don’t want to pick on managers, but again experience has demonstrated that when you ask Why 5 times to get to the root cause of an information-based process problem, often the directions given by a manager will show up somewhere in the responses). Anyhow, the person, let’s call him Bob, goes off to get started and begins an Excel workbook. Bob usually saves his workbook in one of his ‘My Documents’ folders after all that is where all of his important files are stored.

A little digression on the storage location point, it doesn’t seem to matter whether Bob has a network file server, or a SharePoint library available to him, the default always seems to be to use his own My Docs or some folder on his PC hard drive. Even if Bob knows and has used the file server or the SharePoint library he will often begin by saving it in his own computer. He probably has full intentions of putting it somewhere to be shared later on but by not having the a vision of the process that will be needed to complete his small project from the get-go he is going down a path that leads away from efficient collaboration.

After Bob gets his workbook started he discovers he needs some data from a few other people so he calls or emails them to inquire. Those helpful soles generally find the time to answer the call; after all they likely understand that the manager is the one who really needs it. So, they reply back to the email and attach a spreadsheet with what they think Bob needs, or they may even paste several rows and columns of data into an email and send it that way. Either way Bob is now receiving data, which may or may not be complete or what he is really after, in the form of extra spreadsheets or word documents or emails. From there he has to paste it into the ‘master’ copy and do his own manipulations.

All too often Bob ends up sending the master Excel spreadsheet on to some people so they can see exactly what he is working on. They in turn save it into their My Documents folder and add some content before sending it back. On and on it goes, and at some point Bob sends (emails) the workbook (and I am using the terms spreadsheet, workbook and Excel file synonymously here) to his manager to get feedback. Of course the manager then saves a copy, probably adds to the data, sends it back to Bob, and just to really make it fun sends it on to a couple of other people who will have some pertinent data or need to review it.

I’m sure you get the point, and I am also sure most of you have all experienced this to some degree. You end up with about 100 copies of a spreadsheet and nobody is quite sure which one is the latest and greatest and which copy contains the important edits they put in.

Often the head-down hard-working people in the business where this occurs have a sense that this can’t be the best way to do this, but they’re busy, too busy to step back and really assess the amount of time and money spent on a small project like this.

The Cost of Inefficiency

Through reviews of business journals and Google Scholar I have found studies suggesting that the cost to an enterprise of inefficient information systems ranges from 12-30% of HR costs. What would that amount mean to your organization? How much work would be done faster and with higher quality if that was eliminated? And that doesn’t include a calculation for lost opportunity. How much more productive would your people and your company be if that inefficient time was replaced with productive time?

It is hard to put a number on the waste related to Microsoft Office and other software applications, and there is no way you would want to do away with them; regardless of less than optimal use MS Office still contributes heavily to peoples’ productivity.

The Solution

If you are just looking for a quick fix then improving on a few specific Excel skills may be all that is needed. But if this is a recurring issue and you have the sense that there is some significant productivity lost due to it then a wider scope is needed. In that case the solution, the ultimate solution, is a product of leadership. And, not surprisingly since it is coming from me, (and I see everything as a process) the solution is a product of identifying and designing the process.

From the leadership stand point the solution starts with a vision, which may even be expressed in a policy that says something to the effect of; ‘we don’t email Excel or Word documents to project team members’, and, ‘we use the tools available to us to optimize collaboration’, and, ‘we actively look for examples of waste in our process and figure out how to eliminate it’. It is really the Lean® management philosophy of pursuit of perfection and elimination of waste, but it is a philosophy that must come from the top and be consistently driven.

It requires stepping back and taking an objective assessment of your information systems and asking the question ‘are we efficient in how we use these applications?’ Sometimes that is difficult for one individual (the leader) to fully grasp. It is a vantage point problem: when occupying a specific role the focus is mostly on the tasks required of that role and it is hard to comprehend the diverse array of relationships that are constantly running through the organization.

In the numerous situations where I have had a group from the same workplace together and we have mapped out a couple of common repetitive processes for everyone to see, the eureka of understanding that washes over them when they finally see all the steps and hand-offs that are currently taking place is always fascinating. There is no substitute for the impact that clearly displaying an organizations cross-functional business process has as a communication tool.

Excel Training, based on your Processes

Ok, so understanding the workflow has irreplaceable value, but you may be saying, ‘I just need to figure out how to handle this data better’, or how to automatically update a chart, or…, a thousand Excel based problems. Great, I enjoy playing with Excel and showing off some of its amazing functionality so learning new tricks is great, but I still recommend get the training that is relevant for you and your organization.

Often people take an Excel training course for general skills upgrading and they come away with some new ways to do things but by in large the training is not relevant to what they do on a daily basis. There are many common Excel skills that are relevant regardless of what you are trying to create or solve, so general training will not be a total waste. However studies show that most people retain 5-10% of what they learn in seminars so considering that what you will learn may not be of interest and that you may not remember everything that is taught, a different approach is worth considering.

I customize training to provide modules that are specific for the skills you need, and follow it up with side-by-side guidance to ensure you can apply it in the real world. But, I still recommend beginning with a wider vision than just the immediate needs of an Excel function – have an overview of where the information is coming from, where it has to end up and who is involved. You will spend a little more time up front but will be pleasantly rewarded with less hassle and more time in the future.

If you have an Excel of other Office workflow problem running rampant in your organization please give me a call; a 15 minute conversation is all that is needed to determine if, and how I can help.

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