The Cost of Using Excel for Plan Management: Time

By Paige Pulaski


The Cost of Using Excel for Plan Management: Time

Let’s face it. Excel is basically the same program folks were running on their PCs in the 80s. 30-some-odd years later, it’s still a table matrix with some programmed equations thrown in there. Excel may have gotten a facelift since its 1985 release (or maybe it just “moisturizes”), but it’s still the same basic program.

Now, think about our business strategies. Think about how far we’ve come in the planning world. Are the agile, flexible, responsive plans we’re writing for our businesses now fit to exist on thousands of lines on a spreadsheet? Are we able to get a high-level overview of our plans from a multi-tabbed monster? Absolutely not.

Don’t get me wrong. Spreadsheets do a handful of things really well; but, if you were making a list of the top ten things Excel excels at, tracking and reporting on hundreds of project initiatives wouldn’t even appear on page four of Google results (and the only person who clicks that far is our collective moms).

Chief Strategy Officers, Enterprise Change Managers, Process Improvement Coordinators, and SVPs of Operations are looking for tools that help them solve problems that spreadsheets cannot. Today, these leaders need high-level overviews, as well as the ability to drill down and see detail, and they need to be able to pull reports quickly that are up-to-date and contextual.

As you’ve read in the other two parts of this blog series (Part 1: Bad Data, Part 2: Limited Access), Excel is a limiting factor to our productivity. But still, the biggest offender is the amount of time we lose to chasing down updates, gathering data, compiling it into a spreadsheet, and then exporting screenshots of graphs to PowerPoints and emails. Tell me if I’m wrong; I’ll wait.

You know this pain – and you deal with it. You have to know there’s something better, but you don’t want to spend the money or time to make the switch. The caveat? You’re spending more money and time dealing with it than you would if you just found a software that does it all for you.

Cost of Using Excel for Strategic Plan Management

Read this guide to learn the not-so-obvious dangers of using Excel for strategic plan management, and how to find something better.

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Here’s what I mean.

Time Lost Trying to Get the Information You Need

Global organizations who use Excel to track and monitor their plans can have hundreds of sheets in one complicated spreadsheet that still doesn’t track everything they need. And yet, the spreadsheet also doesn’t provide a good executive dashboard view of everything at a high level.

It’s too detailed/not a big enough picture, and too overarching/not enough detail at the same time. It’s difficult to drill down and see the task information you want, and it’s impossible to see all your data in a comprehensive format.

It’s an odd limbo to be caught within. When in this state of not-enough-but-also-too-much, important information can get lost in all the clutter because the data is difficult to analyze, agitated by the fact that it’s done as an afterthought after several hours are spent just pulling a report together.

Organizations using tools that were built to track and monitor plans reported that 51% of users were able to improve the precision and detail of their structured plans, while only 8% of Excel users were able to build more effective plans than before.

It’s nearly impossible to easily understand something like, “How are we doing in the area of safety across the organization?” when hundreds of activities live under fifty major strategic priorities and they’re scattered across twenty different workbooks and tabs. The inability to filter by status and area across multiple plans hinders companies looking for the overall view without spending weeks in meetings.

Just as important as the level of detail itself, how are you able to view and present the data? How many additional views do you need to create in your spreadsheet to suit the day-to-day requests for information from different departments with different interests? Summarizing roadblocks and showing team progress and initiative updates can be cumbersome when you need to create and export specific filters and tabs for every request – and remember which one is which.

Time Lost Chasing, Compiling, and Reformatting

Manual reporting wastes time. It’s more than just data entry. It’s chasing updates, compiling information from email into Excel into graphs into PowerPoint into a PDF, accuracy verification, formula creation and template maintenance, and more.

93% of people who use Excel for planning are dissatisfied with the quality of results and the amount of work (time) it takes to provide data.

However, the real problem isn’t the cost in hours and dollars. Your organization’s loss of time is measured by the inability to get to market faster and losses to competitors. Your dulled reaction time is keeping your organization from starting development on something new, stopping an expensive project that’s not paying off, or double down on what’s working.

The real threat is the opportunity cost of the time it takes for someone to chase down updates, manually input data, compile information for consumption, etc.

Your planning manager could be working on projects that generate significant growth for your company, or they could dedicate the majority of their time reminding stragglers to email updates to an overflowing inbox and formatting a spreadsheet.

It’s the cost of what “could be.” It’s the gap between your strategy manager’s (and organization’s) potential, and the reality of how much time these pains consume.

This loss is amplified by the fact that the people charged with managing execution, and the executors themselves, waste phenomenal amounts of time trying to document, track and report their own progress, manually pull data from several programs, format it, send it to the right place and remember when updates are due in the midst of their other project timelines. It seems clear that most leaders would rather make it possible for all of those employees to do the jobs for which they were hired.

This price doesn’t go away when using specialized planning software, but it is cut down significantly by just enabling multiple users to input data into one common location without compromising the integrity of the data and tracking. With things like real-time data integration, the company spend on human resources to do manual reporting in Excel is chopped down even further.

Outside of what it costs your organization to not be executing your plan to reach your goals, companies are likely spending thousands of dollars just to keep the cogs turning on a machine that doesn’t work. Organizations are often relegating top talent to low value work by paying someone to look at Excel/SharePoint, Smartsheet, and Google Sheets all day long.

The Challenges of Making the Switch to Better Software

You know it’s bad. We all do. Why don’t we all find a better solution?

One third of companies still opt against using specialized planning solutions for two reasons – high cost and insufficient support for individuals. Additionally, with the invention of an app for every task, it’s not uncommon for organizations to suffer from software and change fatigue after going through multiple purchasing and training processes with every multiple software solutions.

Organizational planning is in a state of evolution. We’re not putting together strategic plans the same way we did in the 90s. Strategic plans today are all types of plans – mergers & acquisitions, product roll-outs, risk management and compliance, operational excellence, etc. – that require strategy. With the scope of “planning that is strategic” in flux, the way we’re tracking and adapting has to bend with us and become more flexible and agile.

Chasing updates and copying and pasting numbers into a spreadsheet isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Integrated planning is the way of the future, as we align individuals to strategic initiatives to show their direct impact on organizational goals. As we make way for more detailed planning, better integration with other performance management processes, shorter planning cycles and a stronger focus on key factors and value drivers, the need to save time on the front end of data collection to be able to spend more time on analysis is increasing.

Right now, it takes so long to coordinate resource-intensive planning efforts that the plan is often outdated by the time it has been signed off on and implemented using multiple planning tools.

Some of the issues we’ve seen with inflexible, unspecialized software are prolonged process length, insufficient plan detail, difficulty of data updates, unsupported plan implementation/integration/adoption, abysmal employee engagement, unreliable data quality, and overall poor results.

If the only reason you’re continuing to use Excel is because your employees already know how to use it, it’s time to stop paying the price of being inadequate and commit to a culture of execution with specialized planning software.