3 areas where manufacturers overuse Excel

December 12, 2023

Is your organization still relying on Excel spreadsheets to manage key data? It may be time to reconsider your core manufacturing infrastructure.

Manufacturers tend to be the kind of people who roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. This practical approach—both to day-to-day operations and emergency problem-solving—often delivers immediate results. But it can also be misapplied and come with significant costs, especially to data operations. In a world in which data is quickly becoming a primary currency, such mishandling can be fatal to manufacturers’ success.

At 3AG, we’ve observed a wide range of in-house data projects, many hastily assembled using the most immediately available tool: Excel. While Excel is incredibly versatile and works well for certain business activities, it is not designed to support complex, robust data initiatives. Every time a new Excel spreadsheet is created, those relying on them to manage company data may instead actively compromise its integrity and reliability.

That said, a single spreadsheet can become a single point of failure—because the more it’s used in other data projects, the more this one inaccurate or flawed spreadsheet can create cascading errors elsewhere. This sort of destructive effect can have widespread, significant impact on overall business success. While we see a range of Excel misapplications, manufacturers tend to use it too much for:

  1. Production planning and work orders
  2. Incident reporting
  3. Inventory management

1. Production planning and work orders

Many problems can result from running production planning from Excel. First, your production schedule will likely already be out of date the minute you release it to the shop floor. Much can change over the course of a week or month: customer orders may be modified, mistakes made, equipment may break down, or staffing issues may all literally throw a wrench into your plans, no matter how well considered they are.

This issue of quickly outdated production schedules leads to the second problem: using Excel for production planning management. Excel files are notoriously difficult to manage when shared with multiple users. While it is easy to create and distribute copies of the same file to a large number of people, this ease of sharing is also its Achilles’ heel. Sharing spreadsheets with multiple users almost always creates a complex file network the creator will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to keep updated.

Further, if your planning team uses Excel to share production schedules, they’re probably also using Excel to do the formal planning, that is, using it to incorporate customer orders, market trends, seasonality, and inventory management into a plan balancing all these variables. Excel begins to show its weaknesses when analysis needs become too complex.

The problem with sending Excel-based work orders to the factory floor is that this is essentially holding a one-sided conversation. The only way for the floor to suggest changes is to send back a modified Excel sheet; this is both unnecessarily time-consuming and doesn’t allow for job completion to be seamlessly integrated into the production system. Also, if such spreadsheets are manually filled out by either the planning team or on the shop floor, additional errors may occur and add up quickly.

2. Incident reporting

Many organizations insist on using it this way, but Excel is not designed to store and arrange large volumes of text. It may seem easier to identify which cells to fill out in an Excel document than organize text in Word, but this initial ease of use will become a problem in short order. Factory incident reporting includes a lot of numeric-like data such as time, date, and check-boxes; however, the real value and insight from such reports is often found in verbal description fields.

By performing a semantic analysis of incident report text descriptions, 3AG has identified unexpected safety trends for one of our clients; our key findings are outlined in Workplace safety and data analytics. By applying Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) against text descriptions of incidents, we were able to detect crucial work safety patterns and make a recommendation to improve on-site activities—neither of which could have been gleaned from the yes/no data fields typically collected in spreadsheets.

The fact is, companies using Excel for incident reporting usually end up collecting data of limited quality and usefulness. Given the serious nature of workplace accidents, richer data collection and understanding are essential; relying on Excel for data collection associated with staff health and safety just doesn’t make sense any longer. Analysis tools are becoming increasingly advanced; if you have data you can’t process today, you’ll probably be able to process it tomorrow.

Excel is easy to modify and this is one of the biggest strikes against using it for incident reporting. Unless key fields are locked, staff may skip inputting data points that take more time. A better choice than using spreadsheets is to have staff use a mobile app that doesn’t allow users to proceed to the next step without properly entering the right data at the first step. Or better yet, adopt a company-wide app that supports multiple input formats to make the process even more efficient.

3. Inventory management

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) can be daunting, especially for organizations that don’t yet have such programs in place. ERPs can be difficult to begin, get going, and integrate; getting them up and running can cause significant drain on company capital as well. Because they can be expensive and painful, it’s not unusual for companies to just continue using a hodge-podge of workarounds that may or may not be either accurate or effective, either singly or in combination.

Manufacturers cannot continue using Excel to track SKUs, WIP, and inventory levels indefinitely, however. Eventually, they will need to begin using more advanced tracking and data entry tools if they want to remain competitive, financially stable, and safe for both staff and customers.

Manufacturers of a certain size will likely have some purpose-driven ERP in place, but may use it only as a glorified database. To make inventory decisions, they may still download everything to Excel and play around with the numbers. This, of course, results in the usual manual data errors, spreadsheet formula mistakes, one-way communication, and multiple versions of the analysis; this list can go on and on.

Whether such a company uses Excel directly for tracking inventory, or indirectly for ERP inventory analysis, the result is the same—too much time spent on processes highly prone to accruing and spreading errors.

Moving beyond Excel

Excel makes a lot of sense in a lot of situations; small operations with 10 or fewer staff, for example, can do just fine relying on Excel for the above use cases. The major challenge with Excel is one of scale. Once an operation gets big enough for managing complexity risk to become a priority, it’s time to retire the spreadsheets because continuing to use them will ultimately reverse that growth.

A manufacturing data management program doesn’t have to be either daunting or cost millions to implement. At 3AG, we regularly work with companies to design scalable data strategies that are built on robust infrastructures but are also flexible enough to grow with their operations.

Looking to learn more about data engineering? Check out our Guide to Data Engineering with helpful resources on this topic.


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