PLM Excel Spreadsheets: From Odes to Woes

Although, I love my PLM Spreadsheets, it is a sort-of “Love and Hate” relationship. Since it’s so easy to start with Excel, we always do…, but what is the price of this easy move? So, I decided to follow-up my love letter to Excel with some “hate” statements.

1. It becomes complex within time. You always start with something simple to do. A few columns; simple formulas. But life adds additional parameters, and data to manage…. and then you can hardly manage it at all. You don’t remember all your excel dependencies. The Copy/Paste you loved in the beginning is no longer an easy task…

2. You cannot change it easily. At the beginning of your Excel story, it seems so easy to change. You can send it to any person, add information, delete, manage reports, etc. But as time goes by, nobody remembers the really good relationships you built in Excel. To touch data in Excel becomes so complex! I’ve seen many organizations who have an “Excel Manager” duty. These people are called “mission critical Excels”.

3. Data is not only in Excel. Your PLM life is not in Excel only. A lot of information exists in CAD, Designs, ERP, or in additional legacy applications. In my view, Excel is a very bad integration tool. You cannot easily point to information residing in other systems. But to manage these relationships, it’s really important to have the right data in your hands when you need it.

4. Where is my latest Excel? I’m sure you have asked this question many times. Is it the one connected to your mail? Is it the one on your laptop, or is it the one in SharePoint? When you have multiple Excels, and especially if you have multiple versions of these Excels, you will really be lost…

5. Hidden cost of dependencies. In the beginning of the Excel journey, it so easy to send an Excel file to your colleagues. You just attach it to your mail and you it’s delivered. But as soon as your Excel becomes complex such as being connected to other data sources or linked to other Excels, you cannot encapsulate it so easy. So, sometimes sending it via email isn’t so trivial.

What should I do next? I still really like my PLM Excel, but before building my PLM system on Excel grounds, I would like to try to find ways to avoid these hidden Excel problems. How should I do this? Keeping it simple is a good recommendation in theory, but not always easy an easy task to put into practice. I will think about a few recommendations and possible solutions, and will come back to you in future posts. I’ll record the recommendations in an Excel sheet before posting them here. Or maybe not….Stay tuned…


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  • One you don’t mention here is excel version incompatability. Microsoft typical doesn’t concern itself with backwards compatibility issues on an end-to-end basis, and when they release new versions of their office suite (which I believe they are doing later this year) it often “breaks” spreadsheets constructed in the prior version (often embedded in the macros). This can lead to some real challenging integrity problems in these massive, interconnected “PLM” spreadsheets.

  • Mark, you are absolutely right! Version incompatibility is also pain. What happens today, in my view is that MS is trying to align everybody on Office 2007. Sounds like pretty stable and full functional version. However, I believe most of the customers are still on 2003 version. -Oleg/

  • It is a continual issue for Microsoft, they are always trying to get the customer base on the latest version. Given the maturity of the office suite and the lack of “must have” innovation, many larger IT departments effectively version skip and will go from 2003 to office 14 (the next version). For most, it isn’t worth the cost and risk ton adopt new versions. This is actually one of the great benefits of SaaS/cloud applications, the version update happens painlessly and quietly while you sleep (as the user).

  • Mark, in this case Arena expected to replace massively Excel -PLM implementations. But this is not happened. Can you explain why? People still continue to run MS Excels (of different versions :)). Oleg/

  • I think there are two main reasons:

    1) The complexity (or perceived complexity) of changing a process that works (kind of). PLM sounds scary and people have had very bad experiences with other enterprise application (e.g. ERP) installs. So it often ends up easier to stick with status quo.
    2) Some organizations aren’t ready or don’t want the discipline that is associated with a PLM system. They actually like their processes a little “loose” with the belief that is gives them speed and agility (and for some this might be true, until they get to a certain point of maturity). PLM does require a certain rigidity around BOM rules, ECO rules, version management, etc.

    I don’t think it was cost (typical Arena customer could use full featured PLM for $20-30k, depending upon # of users), nor product completeness (for the 300+ customers that do use it, across many discrete manufacturing industries, they give the solution high marks).

    My experience in talking with hundreds of “potential customers”, it was the challenge of the change management project. Maybe a good VAR/consultant opportunity?

  • Mark, thanks for sharing this experience. I could understand what you call “perceived complexity”. Most of PLM talks are not casual and may cause reaction you mentioned. I believe not all VARs are able to handle this opportunity these days…
    For me is very interesting your observation about “loose” processes. Do you correlate this type of organization to their size or specific industry? Oleg

  • EXCEL is a wonderful engineering tool. It makes calculations of vast quantities of data easy, it makes you calculations semi-explicit, provides reasonable graphs and charts. And for process analysis and some functions within PLM it’s an aid.

    My issue become one of collaboration. EXCEL is a desktop tool and thus to collaborate you either email it around or have strong sharing procedures in place. Works well for small orgs, but as the company grows it becomes cumbersome.

    Microsoft at one time for all intents, ran its business using EXCEL and EMAIL. As it grew it found it could no longer manage using that strategy. There is a place for EXCEL in PLM but as the core integration vehicle –even with the new SQL 2008 EXCEL in memory extensions– it’s not the right strategy.

    When I’ve reengineered various corporations, I’ve used EXCEL & ACCESS for both analysis and prototyping but scaling became an issue any time the engineering activities grew past a small department.

    The two major functions needed outside of EXCEL’s strong points; Data management and Workflow suggest that other products be used in conjunction with desktop tools.

  • Brian, I think Excel (and especially Excel services paired with MOSS) can provide good foundation for PLM collaboration from the side of user experience. But the problem I see is that as soon as you start to formalize Excel by brining some formal data management and process (workflow), it lost all benefits. I believe it’s possible to find gold section and balance, but I’m not sure somebody did it until now. Thanks for your insight, this is great-Regards,Oleg.

  • Oleg,
    Violent agreement again, the operative word though is “Formal” data management and workflow. Microsoft and other companies managed using EXCEL using ad-hoc workflows using Exchange and NOTES. Much of the original process design work I did for Rockwell years ago was “structured” but not formalized in the sense that we had official checkpoints, sign-offs and job descriptions in great detail.

    It worked because the groups were small, collaborated well due to collocation. Ref: Effects of Cellular Manufacturing –S.S.Seitz PhD Thesis Pepperdine University Once an organization gets beyond a specific size ad-hoc collaboration breaks down.

  • Hi Brian, I’m trying to Google your thesis, but can find… sorry. Do you have link on this? Thanks.Oleg

  • Brian, Could you, please explain what is included into “formal” data management and Workflow? -Oleg.

  • Oleg, I appreciate many of your “hate” statements. We deal daily with people that have the “Excel Manager” duty in their companies. Our hosted service for better managing Excel spreadsheet collaboration has been of tremendous help to them. eXpresso ( eliminates version chaos by having one centrally managed version of the spreadsheet that the file owner can share with others. eXpresso allows the file owner to enforce unique view and edit restrictions on a spreadsheet, using a concept called asymmetric collaboration and patent pending technology. In a way eXpresso is like SharePoint on demand, already configured to allow multi-enterprise collaboration on a spreadsheet. The owner can choose to receive edit alerts and notifications, access a complete audit trail of changes down to the cell level and more.

    With eXpresso you can feel much more comfortable building your PLM system on Excel, because many of the cons to using Excel are turned into pros when you combine Excel with eXpresso. eXpresso handles version incompatibility too – so you can be using Excel 2007 while your collaborators use Excel 2003 or even 2000.

    I sincerely hope that you and those that have commented on your blog entries take a look at eXpresso and some of our proven use cases. And feel free to send support an email. There are real people that respond to those quickly.

    [Oleg] Garvin, Thank you very much for comments. I enjoyed reading your blog and, yes, agree about excel challenges. Hosted service like expressocorp provides is definitely possible option to solve problem. Best-Oleg.

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