As a specialty contractor, you have likely relied on Excel for a long time. It’s in every aspect of your business. You use spreadsheets for accounting, estimating, labor planning, logistics planning, and project management. It is so well entrenched in your business that the thought of moving on seems too frightening, risky, and borderline impossible.
Creating, maintaining, organizing, linking, updating, sharing, storing, and all-around managing spreadsheets most likely isn’t your project manager’s favorite part of the job. It also doesn’t help to mention that maintaining mountains of spreadsheets with questionable data may expose your business to more risk.
While spreadsheets may be a familiar and comfortable place, they may be doing more harm than good for your bottom line.
Spreadsheets are notoriously riddled with errors. Research into the accuracy of spreadsheets has found error rates at 80% or more, with some claiming the error rate is actually closer to 90%.
Because spreadsheets are not databases they can’t be updated by more than one person at a time, the data they contain can’t be audited, they don’t allow for a formal workflow, and have little security or controls over mistakes.
Here are a few tips to consider when using spreadsheets as your main way to wrangle project management:
- Multiple versions of spreadsheets, and linked spreadsheets almost guarantee someone is working off of outdated information.
- There’s no way to ensure a user doesn’t alter information incorrectly.
- It’s impossible to gain data analytics and generate reports for better decision making.
- Data within spreadsheets are not tied to other project data, forcing dual data entry and missed opportunities in data synergy.
If you’re thinking this might be a problem you should take action on, here are six ways you can free yourself from the consequences and constraints of spreadsheets:
1. Commit to Jumping Ship
This might sound like a simple step, but it can be one of the most challenging, primarily because of two requirements—investment and change. You already have a lot invested in your spreadsheet collection and it’s costly to make widespread change. One way to overcome the roadblock of past investment is to consider the shift to cloud-based tools as a business improvement expense in both budget and time.
2. Investigate Where Spreadsheets are Used Company-Wide
It’s very common for construction firms to use spreadsheets for estimating, accounting, billing, and budgeting. Some also use them for project timelines and for other scheduling tasks. You need to know all the places spreadsheets are being used and for what purposes. Once you have that list, you can formulate a plan for migrating away from spreadsheets.
3. Map Workflows to Gain Efficiencies
It’s often wise to make changes gradually, especially when many people and teams are involved. Map out where people use spreadsheets for business and project-critical purposes. Then, look at spreadsheet use that feeds those purposes. For example, an estimator might do estimating with a spreadsheet, but the estimating process is fed data from a different spreadsheet tracking material and labor costs. Instead of trying to step away from spreadsheets for estimating, it might be better to simply convert the process to one that uses an estimating program or application.
4. Plan for Change Management
Be very aware of how these changes will affect people. Assess where you’ll get resistance and plan for how to prevent or mitigate it. Plan to have multiple communications that explain what’s happening. Ask for, and consider employee input. Getting buy-in will carry your effort far with less wasted energy. Be prepared to show what the changes will mean in terms of workload, both during and after the transition. Report on the results of transitions as they happen. Have contingency plans for areas with the greatest possibility of problems.
5. Plan to Track Results
Think about all the ways you can see measurable results from the transition. Select the results that will provide hard numbers and make their tracking a priority. But, don’t overlook smaller advantages. If superintendents can report more time available for jobsite observations, that’s a plus. If administrative people feel less stress because there are fewer errors arising from repetitive data input, that’s also a plus!
6. Seek Feedback Often
You will have no shortage of complaints and ideas coming from the people who must give up their spreadsheet dependence. Listen and listen well. Ask for suggestions. There are no doubt some simple aspects of your business where spreadsheets fit well, and perform as they should––such as basic tasks and some quick analytics that don’t feed into larger computations. The ultimate goal is to use spreadsheets for tasks that fit their purpose, and to use the best solution available for all other purposes.
Spreadsheets can be very powerful and useful when used under the right conditions. However, construction has never been more complex and the demand for specialty contractors to operate more quickly and efficiently has never been greater. Spreadsheet limitations can be a weak link in your process and make it difficult to keep up, not to mention expose your business to unnecessary risks.
By using the six steps above, you can build processes and systems that empower you to be better connected as a team and improve your productivity, performance, and profitability.