Digital Transformation and Misusing Excels: A Cautionary Tale

Digital Transformation and Misusing Excels: A Cautionary Tale

In the world of engineering and product lifecycle management (PLM), Excel and other forms of spreadsheets have long been well known as the go-to tool for everything from data analysis to bill of materials (BOMs), procurement, inventory and project management. They offer unparalleled flexibility and ease of use, allowing engineers to tackle complex problems with relative simplicity. However, beneath the surface lies a growing danger – the misuse of Excel.

How Excel and Spreadsheets are Leading to Failures In Manufacturing Organizations?

There are many example of how organizations are failing short because of their reliance on Excel spreadsheets. Here is one of my favorites I found recently – Formula 1 chief appalled to find team using Excel to manage 20,000 car parts. Here is my favorite passage and confirmation how Excel can result in business problem – Willams missed early pre-season testing in 2019.

Starting in early 2023, Williams team principal James Vowles and chief technical officer Pat Fry started reworking the F1 team’s systems for designing and building its car. It would be painful, but the pain would keep the team from falling even further behind. As they started figuring out new processes and systems, they encountered what they considered a core issue: Microsoft Excel.

The Williams car build workbook, with roughly 20,000 individual parts, was “a joke,” Vowles recently told The Race. “Impossible to navigate and impossible to update.” This colossal Excel file lacked information on how much each of those parts cost and the time it took to produce them, along with whether the parts were already on order. Prioritizing one car section over another, from manufacture through inspection, was impossible, Vowles suggested.

The consequences of this row/column chaos, and the resulting hiccups, were many. Williams missed early pre-season testing in 2019. Workers sometimes had to physically search the team’s factory for parts. The wrong parts got priority, other parts came late, and some piled up. And yet transitioning to a modern tracking system was “viciously expensive,” Fry told The Race, and making up for the painful process required “humans pushing themselves to the absolute limits and breaking.”

Misusing Excels

My attention was caught by article by Yogi Schultz – Engineers are World Leaders in Misusing Excel. Talking to many engineers I can confirm that the level of stubbornness you can meet sometimes when talking to engineers about using Excels can go through the roofs.

Yogi Schultz brings a great summary of common Excel misuses. I can sign every single word in his examples. Here they are listed below. Let’s dig into some of the most prevalent misuses of Excel in the engineering world:

  1. Excel Is Not a Database: Despite its ability to store data, Excel falls short as a database management system. When Excel can no longer handle the required data volume or end-user access, it’s time to transition to a proper DBMS application.
  2. Excel Workbooks Cannot Share Data: In an age of digital transformation, data integration is key. Excel workbooks stored on network drives hinder data sharing and integration efforts, leading to inefficiencies and potential errors.
  3. Excel Is Not a Programming Language: While Excel is great for basic calculations and charting, it’s no substitute for a proper programming language. When the limitations of Excel become apparent, engineers should turn to comprehensive programming languages to build robust applications.
  4. Excel Workbooks Are Not Applications: Excel may excel (pun intended) at ad hoc data analysis, but it lacks many features expected of a full-fledged application. When a workbook becomes unwieldy and unreliable, it’s time to consider alternatives like software packages or cloud-based solutions.

Engineers Love and Hate Relationships with Excel

So, what motivates engineers to misuse Excel? Why is it happening. In my very old article from 2009 I explained Engineers love and hate relationships with Excel and spreadsheets. Check them out.

Why do I like my Excel spreadsheets?

PLM Spreadsheets: From Odes to Woes

Here is my quick bullet point reminder to all engineers and IT people that think how to quickly solve the product data management and lifecycle management problem using a “simple Excel” or some sort of magic application like Google Sheet, Smart Sheet, or Airtable:

Spreadsheets become complex within time. You start simple and a few columns and lookups later, you are deep in the mess of data, columns, parameters, dependencies and everything else that will make you keep spending time on organizing of these spreadsheets.

The data in spreadsheets can be entered easy, but as the time goes by, nobody really can remember the level of dependencies between columns, rows, sheets, and parameters you use in formulas. It is becoming sort of ‘magic kingdom’ that requires a full time Excel Manager duty. I know engineers call it “mission critical Excels”.

The data is not only in Excels and spreadsheets. You have data in CAD systems and enterprise software (eg. MRPII or ERP), and other legacy databases. As much as we like Excel for simplicity, spreadsheets are not a good integration tools. There is no easy way to connect a specific data to another application. You cannot attach files to Excel records. Which means your data is not located in a single place and not connected well.

Revisions and changes is a big deal. Copy of Excel from Date1, Copy of copy of copy of Excel for assembly X. Are you familiar with these issues? It is in your email, it is your Dropbox folder, etc. Where is my latest Excel is one of these questions that you and your colleagues will be asking very soon.

Last, but not least. As much as everyone believes Excel is free (or almost free), it is not true. The time, the mistakes, and management of complexities have hidden cost. So, what starts as a simple story ends very complex.

What are the motivations behind Excel misuse? From my experience, I can see some of them associated with strong innovation and technical skills of engineers. Some of others are related to motivation not to deal with complex IT and complex enterprise systems such as PDM/PLM and others.

Why Digital Transformation is a Game Changer?

We live in the fast changing world charged by use of correct information for our decision making, business consolidation, AI tools and many others. The data is a new oil if you like this comparison and sometimes one of the most critical assets. How we can trust this asset to such an unreliable data management tool such as Excel. Businesses are constantly seeking tools and technologies to streamline processes and enhance efficiency. Excel spreadsheet is a literally a crack in your digital transformation strategy. While Excel has long been a staple for data analysis and management, its misuse can pose significant risks to the digital transformation journey.

Here are five risks of keep using Excels to manage your product data and lifecycle management processes:

  1. Fragmented Data: Isolated Excel files create data silos, hindering efforts to achieve a unified view of organizational data.
  2. Lack of Revision Control: Without proper versioning and control mechanisms, managing data integrity becomes challenging, leading to errors and inefficiencies.
  3. Inconsistent Updates: Unreliable data updates across multiple Excel spreadsheets undermine data accuracy and trustworthiness.
  4. Disconnected Data: The inability to connect data impedes analysis and decision-making, limiting the effectiveness of digital transformation initiatives.
  5. Questionable Historical Records: Excel’s shortcomings in maintaining accurate historical data raise concerns about

What is my conclusion?

There are good reasons why the product development process very often relies on such an unreliable tool like Excel or online spreadsheets. The reason for that is the inefficiency of legacy data management tools. They are experienced, rigid, require long installation, and cannot be easily adapted to the processes demanded by engineering and manufacturing teams. This leaves space for cracks, such as spreadsheets.

Just as water uses gravity to find a crack and leak down, the same happens with the use (or misuse) of Excel instead of PLM software for product lifecycle, supply chain management, document management, process management, and many other applications to cover an entire lifecycle. Modern SaaS technologies and new types of PLM systems can easily replace Excel’s use for designing and building products.

Connecting SaaS tools directly to existing desktop computer-aided design (CAD) systems and integrating them with modern cloud CAD can be a new PLM technology to replace inefficient Excels. It will allow the use of up-to-date information in the everyday lives of engineers and all other team members who need to analyze data, support accurate data sharing, and improve product quality. Modern online PLM solutions can manage the holistic product lifecycle using connected data where each piece of information is validated and updated automatically to support the holistic product lifecycle. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital-thread platform with cloud-native PDM & PLM capabilities to manage product data lifecycle and connect manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.


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