One of the most challenging aspects of successful project management is the ability to collect a vast amount of project data into one place for easy reporting. If you’re like most organizations however, when you get asked for a status report, you can’t just click a button and a report pops up that’s nicely formatted, with current and accurate information, ready to send to your boss or your client. No way. If you’re like most organizations, when you get asked for a status report, you kick into “Report Gear” and start gathering information so you can build your report. You need to request the latest actual costs, you need the latest vendor invoices, you need to make sure you have all the current change orders up-to-date, you need your progress forecasts entered, and on and on. You need to start sending emails and making phone calls and trolling through spreadsheets – to pull together all the details you need to get that report ready. Any of that sound familiar? For a project manager, reports can take hours, if not days, to prepare. A guy I spoke with a couple weeks ago explained it like this, “It’s like using a shovel and wheelbarrow to excavate a trench,” he said, “You’ll get it done eventually. But that would be ridiculous. Why would a company provide me with primitive tools like a spreadsheet to do complex work when there are better tools out there? Why am I using a wheelbarrow when I can use a digger and a dump truck?” Clearly, enabling a project manager to pump out reliable and accurate reports in a matter of seconds rather than hours makes good business sense. The squandered hours
EPCM organizations that are using just Timesheet & Billing software are finding themselves swamped in spreadsheets to cover the greater technology needs they face. It used to be that all an EPCM needed for enterprise software was a decent-enough timesheet tool to track their billable hours; and an integrated billing tool to invoice their customers. Things have evolved however, and EPCM’s are now seen as the go-to company for project management, procurement, document management, project controls, etc. These requirements obviously go well beyond what a timesheet tool can support. So, confronted with a lack of available tools, project managers & engineers have resorted to building cobbled-together solutions in spreadsheets to cover the gaps. The many challenges with using spreadsheets for this are vast – and can cause issues from productivity loss, to errors, to a compromised service to customers. I was in a meeting with a new client a few weeks ago. During the meeting, one of the guys – who had obviously faced the pain of too many spreadsheets for too long – said to me, “I’ll be happy if I never have to see another spreadsheet for the rest of my life.” He was clearly motivated to up their technology game. And that’s just looking at it from the perspective of providing the right tools for their staff. There is an additional growing pressure on EPCM’s to demonstrate good practices and tools before they can even bid on certain projects. Many clients aren’t willing to hand over critical pieces of their project to an EPCM that’s using hacked-together or home-grown solutions. Owners especially are looking under the covers now as part of their due-diligence to determine which engineering companies they’re prepared to work
The best thing about Excel is that it’s so flexible. The worst thing about Excel is that it’s so flexible. With enough effort and programming, people can bend and twist Excel into doing almost anything. The challenge with that, as many people know, is that lurking inside every spreadsheet are errors that elude the creator. Some errors can be minor, but many errors are much greater in magnitude and can lead to executives making critical decisions based on bad math. Numerous studies on spreadsheet errors have been undertaken over the past 5 years which indicate that an alarming rate of errors exist in business-critical spreadsheets. Consider this blurb from the 2009 University of Hawaii paper on “What we know about spreadsheet errors”: In general, errors seem to occur in a few percent of all cells, meaning that for large spreadsheets, the issue is how many errors there are, not whether an error exists. These error rates, although troubling, are in line with those in programming and other human cognitive domains. In programming, we have learned to follow strict development disciplines to eliminate most errors. Surveys of spreadsheet developers indicate that spreadsheet creation, in contrast, is informal, and few organizations have comprehensive policies for spreadsheet development. Although prescriptive articles have focused on such disciplines as modularization and having assumptions sections, these may be far less important than other innovations, especially cell-by-cell code inspection after the development phase. To put it another way, on average, a spreadsheet will contain 1 error for every 20 cells that contain data. Cell errors are bad enough. What about the errors that are introduced from copying data from one spreadsheet to the next? It’s pretty common to have multiple spreadsheets
When I first met Mike he was a senior project manager at a seismic services company that operates large 3D seismic shoots all over North America. Mike was an Excel pro. He planned & tracked those seismic shoots with pretty decent precision considering the size of the projects – and especially considering he did it using a collection of about 6 spreadsheets. Unfortunately for Mike however, he had no idea that he was spending about 30 extra hours every week just on spreadsheet management. In addition to the extra time, it also wasn’t clear to him that there was very little ROI on that effort since the solution that he’d built was achieving only minimal results. The challenge for Mike – and many others like him – was that he had invested so much time and personal emotional equity in the creation and management of his solution, that the idea of abandoning his dear spreadsheets for a better, more efficient solution was like asking him to drown babies. In our first meeting, he presented his solution to a boardroom full of his colleagues as well as a couple of us 4castplus guys. His presentation took just under an hour, and during that time, there were surprisingly few questions asked. It became clear why by the end: everyone in the room had a jaw-dropping stunned look on their face at the sheer complexity and enormity of his solution. He, on the other hand, was excited and quite proud of his major accomplishment and appeared to be expecting a round of applause. It was practically impossible to truly understand his whole process. There were so many parts to it; and so much movement of data, and copying
When you see something wrong in your organization, do you fix it? Or are you more the type to ignore it and hope it goes away? In our business we come across quite a number of people who are more the breed that put off making any needed changes in their organization until they’re drowning deep in pain and frustration. It’s bad enough sometimes that they reach a point where they need a rescue line to bail them out. It’s not uncommon for organizations to go through a period of growth where they become far too busy to address the numerous challenges that go along with that growth. Instead of confronting the creeping deficiencies as they appear, they side-step the obvious and hope for the best. That is – until these deficiencies result in what I call a “Defining Event”. A defining event could be any number of undesirable results (catastrophic even) such as: a project that went way over budget; a legal dispute with an owner or subcontractor; an embarrassing shortfall in productivity or performance; loss of business; safety incident; etc. There are a load of reasons why people avoid addressing the pain head-on. First of all, people are born procrastinators. It’s pretty rare for someone to fix something before it becomes a real problem, even though they know that the longer they dodge the issue, the bigger problem it becomes. People also fear change. Even though they may be very aware that their current methods are inefficient, difficult, error-prone and time-consuming, these failing methods are a pain they know. A familiar pain that they’ve just learned to deal with – and for some reason the perceived pain of fixing it seems
In our first blog in this series, we talked about the necessity of introducing innovation into your business - to improve efficiency, profitability - to stay competitive. Companies that don’t evaluate how they are doing business, and where they need to improve, are being left behind. Introducing innovation doesn’t have to be overwhelming or complex, and doesn’t have to result in spending a whole lot of money – in fact, the best ways to innovate are to look for ways to simplify and streamline your existing business processes. In this second blog, we’re going to show you how one of our customers, Company A, started to do just that. Company A took a look at a key process – their project cost management - analyzed how they were managing their project costs, how they wanted to manage their project costs and what kind of information they wanted from their project cost management system...and what changes they could make to improve this process. And in future blogs, we’ll see how Company A uncovers inefficiencies in their process, and the result of improvements that they made. Company A has been in business for a number of years, and has been running labor and materials projects that have been fairly similar in nature. They’ve been successful in that key respect that many small business owners benchmark success by – there was cash in the bank at the end of the month. So, all in all, their projects were running profitably – but the question is....how much more profitable could they be? How much more cash-flow could be generated from their projects? Were there trends developing that would signal areas to improve efficiency, shore up the bottom line? As
Excel is an amazing tool. It is truly the great multi-purpose software of our time. People can bend and twist spreadsheets to do pretty miraculous things - from planning a children’s party to full enterprise budgeting & forecasting. Like anything, of course, it has its limits. Excel works just fine in many cases, but when it comes to more complex jobs - like estimating, tracking, controlling and analyzing large construction projects – it simply breaks down. People certainly try to force Excel to work in this field, and there’s no question that with enough time, resources and effort, a person could achieve some - rather limited - results. But the truth is, it’s just not worth it. Especially when there are good tools available which are designed specifically for that task. Don’t get me wrong, I love Excel, I use it all the time and I think it’s a spectacular product. But getting a handle on your project cash-flow, costs, revenues, and having real-time visibility & project progress reporting is far too important to your business just make up your own solution out of a spreadsheet.