Bad habits die hard. When you become accustomed to something, it is hard to break out. And the longer you do it, the harder it is to change. Think about trying to quit smoking. If you did it for many years, you will have a hard time stopping doing it. The habits are usually self-reinforcing. Very often we explain our behavior by using an excuse not to change.
Excel is one of those sins that many engineering and manufacturing organizations follow when it comes to data management. While nobody really believes that Excel is the right way to manage data, everyone uses the excuse of the “traditional” approach and uses Excel and spreadsheets in every possible gap an organization might have. That’s why I always like to call Excel the 2nd best tool for data management in every place.
The aim of Digital Transformation is to change organizational norms and behaviors and switch from the paper and document-oriented environment to data-driven and digital processes. PLM vendors are leading the transformation of manufacturing companies and helping them to switch from Excel files to modern SaaS PLM systems.
As we help engineers and manufacturing companies moving to organize information, I can see how old Excel habits are often preventing organizations and engineers from making progress and shift towards an organized data-driven environment. The same old habits prevent companies from start thinking “data” instead of thinking “Excel documents”.
In my article today, I want to outline 3 typical old Excel habits I see when organizations decide to left Excel data management behind and move forward.
1- Put all my data in a single Excel
It is so easy to think about how to pull all the data in a single Excel. It gives a feeling of control, ownership, and ease of data access. The problem with this approach is that Excel quickly became unmanageable in terms of changes and access control. I can see attempts to hide columns, control the updates, and combining data in Excel with revisions of the Excel files.
2- Organize spreadsheet in a specific order, shape, and form
Once you attempt to put all the data you need in single Excel (even with multiple sheets), I often can see how companies are attempting to manage the structure and make some data organization using Excel formatting methods – order of columns, order of rows, spacing, indentation, etc. All these methods help to the user to get data organizations such as group similar items together (ex. parts of the same type or contractor), product structure, and many others. However, Excel is lacking relationships management and the outcome is a big mess of unstructured data that is hard to manage.
3- Duplicate the data between multiple Excels
Re-use is one of the most powerful and fundamental behavior. The ability to re-use components, assemblies, and projects is simple and powerful. Excel gives you very limited capabilities to re-use, so I can see how companies create multiple copies of Excel files. As a result, there is no single source of data (eg. cost of the item, description, etc) and, instead, companies are managing multiple Excels with duplicated records. The problem is really hard in project-oriented organizations and engineering-to-order processes that give companies a false sense of isolation. Multiple Excels or spreadsheets don’t give them the ability to analyze information and optimize the process and decisions.
What is my conclusion?
It is time to stop Excel OCD that lives in many organizations. Excel thinking is very natural and was used by companies for many years. It is easy to think about how “to have Excel in the pocket” and solve the data management problem by sending Excels around. However, Excel (and spreadsheets) lack 3 fundamental differentiation – granularity, relations, and change history combined together. These differentiators create a big advantage for any organization organizing their data, managing an infinite history of the information, holistic relationships between items (eg. BOM structure), and managing the lifecycle of data. The change is hard. So It is hard to forget old habits and stop thinking “Excel” any time you face a data management problem. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital network-based platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.