How to get out of Excel hell

Part 2 of our series ‘How to get out of Excel hell’

1. Help everyone understand the current situation

A highly capable employee experiences friction if the technology he has, does not fit the current processes or data. The employee is then likely to create a solution in Excel to bridge the gap. This principle is exactly what we have discussed in Part 1 of Excel hell: Friction is caused by differences in the capability in one or more of the four pillars (people, processes, technology and data). As many companies have experienced; running core processes in Excel involves large risks and limitations. To reduce the dependency on Excel, you and your team have to understand in each situation which pillar is less capable than the others. 

When you try to push one of the pillars to a higher level of capability relative to the others, you introduce friction and people find a way to bridge the gap in Excel. Upgrading one of the pillars, e.g. hiring an expert or buying an advanced system, will not deliver desired results if the other pillars are not on a similar level. Within this article we will divide each pillar in three ‘levels’; basic, intermediate and advanced. We use this to give a frame of reference on how rate the organisations current level for the respective pillar.   

As change is a given, the level of capability of each of the pillars will be under constant pressure. You can make big steps in improving capability with a project but keeping the pillars on the same height requires ongoing effort from within the team. The rest of this article explains what the different levels of capability in each of the four pillars mean, to ease understanding where gaps exist.

 As change is a given, the level of capability of each of the pillars will be under constant pressure.

2. Build or hire people capability to design good processes and tools 

Balancing out the pillars people, process, technology and data, needs to start with the people part. Begin by making sure you have the right skills in your team who can deal with the change that comes with moving away from the current way of working.

The people who see the most added value in moving away from Excel hell, are likely the same people who currently suffer from it. They are the ones who currently complain about amending/fixing/extending and working with the Excel files daily. They are already at a basic level – the ability to do the operational tasks required. Ideally, some of these people are interested in growing their skills in working with data and can be taught how to grow out of the Excel hell. In other cases, more tech-savvy talent needs to be attracted to ensure the organization can grow their people pillar.

Once you have chosen the technological process that suits your business best, your people need to be formally trained to work with it. Growing skills in how to maintain data and develop software in a perpetual way within that process is essential in order to move to an intermediate level. Next, train them in working with modern software specifically aimed at the task at hand. Either support the current Excel solution or replace it altogether. Do not try to put people into a role that does not suit them, rather hire people with dedicated skills that will help the team grow. We advise caution: hiring someone overqualified can to lead to more friction if they are not able to spread the knowledge with the team. 

Growing the people pillar, requires allowing people to dedicate time within their schedules to improve their skill set. Make sure the training is formal with experienced trainers. When training on the job, make sure they are mixed in with more experienced end users to keep the learning curve in an upward trajectory. To have the team reach an advanced level set them up in flexible teams, allowing for effective teamwork and precise execution.

3. Make sure there is a permanent process for improvement

When coming out of Excel hell it is easy for old habits to revive (read: people start creating uncontrolled Excels again), especially when under pressure. To prevent this you need a process in place that controls the creation and maintenance of functionalities. 

Senior management has an important role in this. If you keep asking ad-hoc reports that need to be produced yesterday, without a proper tool and process in place, the quick and dirty way is to create a new Excel. And once part of the reporting deck, it stays there. Creating Excel’s should be the exception rather than the rule. Adopt a design principle “Not Excel, unless…”  

“Not Excel, unless…”  

This lever of process control is not the same in each situation. Too little control is ineffective and too much is inefficient. The three levels of the process pillar are: 

Basic for local processes, non-integrated processes. One person uses a tool that is not used for interacting with other functions nor for consolidation. This still needs some control, for example a convention for documenting. You can still have an issue if someone created a solution a month ago and now must repeat it but cannot completely retrack his/her line of thinking. Even here an uncontrolled Excel is not future proof. 

Intermediate for local x-functional processes or reports used for consolidation into other reports. This needs more control. The output of this process step or report is input to other(s) that need to be able to process it. This is easier controlled if both are in the same technical environment with centrally controlled master data and agreed upon conventions for creation and maintenance. Period x-functional review of the framework and if these still support the decision-making process is best practice. 

Advanced for x-functional global processes. Different regions or business units may have different needs because the underlying business drivers are different. As there can be a lot of interaction between functions, or different consolidation layers you need to define what needs to be the “common core” and where, for example, business units or regions can add their specifics and to what extent. This requires a coordinated approach both on central and decentral level and a structured periodic review. A shared vision, road map and associated goals and budget help giving direction. An advanced process is run well by dedicated professionals, supported by a mature tool and fed by high quality data. 

4.  Data needs more attention than you might think

People have started to realize that data is one of the most important assets a company has. The need for high quality data has increased for every job in any company. High quality data can streamline operations, provide a basis for tactical planning and supports strategic decisions. Unfortunately, maintaining high quality data has become increasingly more difficult due to the complexity of many companies.

Basic data that any company has, is operational data. Data types are for example order data, customer data, supplier data and invoice data. Without this information the company cannot do anything. This data is not necessarily well documented; many companies do not keep track of cancelled orders, have plenty of old non-existing customers and one product might exist with many different codes or names. Issues with basic data capability usually occur in cross functional processes or with new initiatives. These processes or initiatives often become dependent on Excel workbooks which are not properly connected to other business processes.

Companies with an intermediate data capability have structured what data they have and how they store it. They realize that different business units have different names and hierarchies and can link most of the data in a data warehouse. This is impossible to achieve if a large part of your data is stored in Excel. Cross functional processes run smoothly with an occasional hick-up and manual update. Intermediate data capability is a good basis for tactical planning, however new initiatives are still difficult to implement due to the complex data structure.

Advanced data capability can only be achieved by making it a priority for every system user, including management. Data hierarchies need to be defined centrally and the importance of proper maintenance must be understood by every employee. To reach this level of data capability, a company needs to have a very strong data storage solution that is easily accessible and interacts with all other systems. High data capability allows the company to have both an overview of, and a detailed insight into, every part of the business. 

5. Get a flexible system that allows you to grow

Excel is one of the more basic tools that can support your business, if the other pillars are also on a basic level. Many small companies or disconnected processes can work just fine by using Excel spreadsheets to monitor, analyse, and communicate without experiencing friction. It allows employees to experiment and to learn and it can quickly be adapted for process and data changes. The tremendous amount of flexibility helps employees bridge the gaps between the pillars. However, Excel is poor at connecting processes, processing large amounts of data and delivering stable high-quality results.

On the other end of the scale, the high capability technology, are tools specifically developed for a certain process. These tools are developed with much care by experts in the field and these experts have thought about the best theoretical practice to solve business challenges. The main downside of these products is that they require that the company is ready to implement best practices across multiple teams. They require the users, the data, and the processes to be able to live up to these high standards. Moreover, not all processes are generic enough for these high capability tools; the best practice for that process does not exist yet in any tool. In these situations, a high capability tool is not the best solution even if the other pillars are very capable. Implementing an advanced tool in an environment that is not ready for it will result in either high modification, a failure in implementation, or a lot of friction after go-live.

In order to grow from basic to advanced, a step in between is required. The right tool is flexible to support the growth of the other pillars and at the same time diminishes the problems of Excel. This tool should work in low capability environments like Excel does, but also work for the high capability user with advanced x-functional global processes and high volumes of data. It should also be able to support edge cases, where advanced tools do not offer any solution out of the box. The next part of this trilogy will be about what the right tool looks like.

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