Spreadsheet “Sprawl” – Are you reaching a breaking point?

As companies grow, they face a different type of ‘growing pain’. Growing number and size of spreadsheets managing critical operational data, plans, decisions and more. We call this “spreadsheet sprawl”. Users and senior operations managers across functions have to be careful that this growth – in spreadsheets – is managed carefully. Left unchecked, this can lead to a breaking point after which the spreadsheets that previously supported operations can become a ‘burning platform’ – leading to severe unproductivity of key team members (planners, procurement specialists, managers) and far worse – direct, detrimental impact to the company’s operations. This Implementation Note draws from the Zyom team’s experiences to outline some early signs that such a breaking point is fast approaching, and what potential corrective action should be taken. And importantly, which remedial actions can make things worse.

Implementation Notes

As Supply constraints continue to wear down Operations teams across industries and the world –the last two years due to the pandemic, and recently with the invasion of Ukraine (in some industries), the last thing on Operations and senior leaders’ mind is the multifarious “spreadsheets” used by cross-functional teams (Supply Operations, Sales, Finance). Yet, our experiences have shown us that for companies that are growing, moderately or geometrically, spreadsheets used in operations are precisely where you should train your team’s attention to, for some key, quick wins.

“Burning Platform” & the ‘breaking point(s)’

In any growing product company spreadsheets are used, especially in the early, tentative stages of growth. Left unchecked, the number and size of spreadsheets start growing rapidly (we call this “spreadsheet sprawl”), often reaching a breaking point at which point it can quickly become a “burning platform[1].

Why “burning platform”? Excessive reliance on spreadsheets beyond a critical “ point” starts negatively impacting the immediate users (planners, procurement), and downstream management users who rely on data for planning and decision-making. That’s not all. There can be more serious knock-on effects to a company’s operations[2] if spreadsheets are not reined in at the right time.

This note focuses on identifying some key* symptoms and early signs that your company maybe close to the breaking point of spreadsheet sprawl, and course-correction is needed quickly to avoid potential operational disruptions. This is also a cautionary tale for leaders in enterprises (Sales, Operations, even the COO) that using overextended spreadsheets is one of the ‘growing pains’ that you want to nip in the bud.

This is also a cautionary tale for leaders in enterprises (Sales, Operations, even the COO) that using overextended spreadsheets is one of the ‘growing pains’ that you want to nip in the bud.

* for a comprehensive list please reach post a comment or reach out to Zyom (contactus@zyom.com)

how companies approach the spreadsheet “sprawl” Breaking point
  1. Large, Functionality “heavy” spreadsheets that keep growing – Spreadsheets that are increasingly consuming more time – of cross-functional Planning and Execution team, especially those responsible for Demand Planning & Supply Chain operations functions, and space – on computer, network drives, cloud storage, etc. Sometimes these spreadsheets can even slow down users’ computers. Questions to ask:
    Is it taking a long time for your spreadsheets to load up on your machine (including, machine becomes non-responsive)?

    Are you spending a lot of time making sure spreadsheets don’t ‘break’?
    For instance – fixing formulas/ macros so spreadsheets do not break down when making changes (e.g., adding new products)? If this is the case you could be flirting with the breaking point of severe “spreadsheet sprawl”.

  2. Top Analysts (Planners, et al) “running out of time” frequently when trying to get their jobs done A key feature of this early warning sign is – a lot of time spent “maintaining spreadsheets” and too little time to conduct “analysis” on the numbers. As a younger product company, you can afford to get going with spreadsheets for critical operations data, while the company is still ramping up (number of products sold, the number of sales geographies, etc.). However, there comes a time when a lot of time is being spent “setting up” the spreadsheets even before any analysis, planning or results (e.g., reports/ charts) can be generated.

    For example, if you were to identify a discrete ‘operations’ job’ – say, ‘setting up all SKUs/ FG items’ to conduct supply planning for a new planning period, and it takes you more than 30% of the total time in setting up the spreadsheets, versus conducting the analysis/ generating plans , other key outputs, then it may be time to let go of the spreadsheets and knock on your leader’s door.

    The actual % number may vary depending on your growth trajectory, and organizational + behavioral issues. Issues such as – a strong operations sponsor, a reasonable budget for operations automation, how secure users feel on their jobs (e.g., “as a ‘top planner’ will it appear that I’m slacking off? Should I put in another 3-4 hours to get this done, and not worry about bringing this issue up?).

  3. Users “holding” on to their spreadsheets; IT team doesn’t want to “touch” the spreadsheets (“10-foot pole” rule) Then there is the case of getting attached to spreadsheets. Users (on-the-ground planners, and curiously, even supervisors) may not feel like letting go of the spreadsheets. Perhaps due to the number of hours invested in their spreadsheet (or, number of companies traversed with those), and all the while it has stood them in good stead[3]. So, why toss it now? Ideally, they should run 2 sniff-tests. No, not someone else trying to “use” their spreadsheets, and resultant feedback. Here are the two:
    1. Ask a senior/supervisor if they know a better way (or tool)Experienced Operations leaders can help assess if the team is reaching the breaking point. Knowledgeable leaders know that ERP based automation is not the solution, despite the various ways in which ERP makers have “platform-ized” their solutions. Leaders with insight know that specialized planning tools (“Advanced Supply Chain Solutions” etc.) are expensive, and often hard to implement – especially, if offered by ERP-first providers. The best approach is to look for a “capability-specific” solution which is cost effective (industries served, operations models served). Best-of-breed “Planning” solutions are fair alternatives. However, this maybe an expensive route, and not provide flexible capabilities that you need.
    2. Ask IT team member to ‘review’ your spreadsheets – At a small, dynamic company, a senior IT team member shared an anecdote which nails this point-
      ‘When [Lead Planner] wanted me to ‘take a look’ at their planning spreadsheets, to see if I could help with automation, I felt like saying– “won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole” (tongue in cheek).’
      Implying, when the complexity and volume of the spreadsheets (number of sheets in a file, number of spreadsheets, formulas etc.) is enough to deter even the most intrepid IT folks, then you know you are closing in on the ‘breaking point’.

  4. Large (and growing) Spreadsheets shared across functions & partners (suppliers, et al)
    When planners/procurement team members in companies that make physical (hardware) products are dropping large and growing spreadsheets into “network drives” or over “MS-SharePoint” or over email (to share with partners outside their enterprise “four-walls”), or doing custom development in Google Sheets, then prudence and our experience shows, these team members are headed the wrong way, accelerating towards, instead of away from the breaking point. It’s time to pause and ask –

Have we (or I) agreed with any of the points above? If you have, then stop.

You maybe be shaving pennies (using spreadsheets) when you can turn on a dime, deliver outputs smart and fast (using a software system) and give your company a lasting operating advantage.

It’s time to quit the spreadsheet(s).

[1] users forced to “jump off” into new tools/ automation without adequate due diligence to assess needs and map to a superior solution

[2] Accuracy of Inventory, matching for Ops finance, among others

[3] There could be other reasons such as jaded in a previous role trying to implement automation which didn’t work

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