The problem of scheduling with spreadsheets

Many businesses today use wallboards, spreadsheets or piles of paper to schedule operations. It makes a lot of since to start off using such tools, because they are affordable and easy to start using. Most business computers already have a spreadsheet program installed such as excel. There are even completely free spreadsheet programs included in free application suites like Open Office.

I'm going to be writing a set of articles outlining the positive and negatives of using manual tools to schedule business operation. I will be upfront in saying that I do have an agenda when writing these articles because I make and sell scheduling software for business operations, I hope my articles can help people avoid some of the potential pitfalls.

Today I will be writing about using spreadsheet programs to schedule. Remember that spreadsheet programs were the sole reason that some people bought personal computers early in the 80's, Wikipedia Spreadsheet article. My highschool physics teacher worked on the Avro Arrow. He spent a summer in a large room with many other highly trained engineers doing calculations by hand that could be done by one person today in a few moments.

Getting back on topic, below potential pitfalls to using spreadsheets for business operations scheduling.

i) Managing imported data from another program

Many businesses perhaps get job data from their enterprise software that they use to create a schedule from. There is a challenge though when merging imported data with a current schedule. What happens if there is overlap? You need to make sure that when you import data that you don't leave out some jobs that need to be scheduled or have duplicate jobs scheduled. One way to avoid this is using a unique identifier in the import file such as a Job number to avoid this situation.

ii) When sorting data always include all columns

I have a sad personal story related to spreadsheets. My dad ran his own business and decided to send out a mailing to potential customers who might be interested in his services. He had compiled a list of names and addresses. The information needed to be cleaned up because it was incomplete. He hired a friend of mine to do the clean-up. This is where the story takes a bad turn. My friend spent a few nights in front of his TV, using excel to remove duplicate entries, complete address, etc. Unfortunately sometimes he used the sort feature in Excel and forgot to incorporate all the columns of data. The consequence was that the right name got aligned with the wrong address. When the mailing went out, most them were returned. Potential customers received letters that were addressed to people they knew, but who worked for completely different companies. Not surprising my dad never hired my friend again.

iii) Relying on one spreadsheet expert!

I have seen some pretty elaborate spreadsheets in my career. Quite often these spreadsheets are more complicated then many of the computer programs you can buy for your computer. Some businesses are blessed with having an spreadsheet expert who is pretty good at putting something together that management needs to achieve a task. There is a downside to this though. Sometimes there is one and only one person who knows how the thing works. This is not a good situation to be in, in the case that expert is away for some time or even worse, leaves the company. Perhaps make sure you have a couple of people who are familiar with hold an important spreadsheet is built.

iv) Spreadsheet vulnerability

One the of the powerful features of spreadsheets are the cell formulas. You can create a dizzying amount of calculated data from just for few data points. If you make a reference mistake though, you can break the entire spreadsheet. If this happens to you, immediately don't save your changes and close the program. You can then open it up again and start off from the last working version.

v) Sharing spreadsheet schedules

Quite often people don't think twice about the filenames they use when saving a computer file. If your business needs to share a spreadsheet schedule it would be a disaster to use file names like machineScheduleLatest.xls. I would recommend using current date and time in the filename so others can see how current the schedule information is.

vi) Spreadsheet data as walls of text and numbers

Let me iterate again that spreadsheets can be useful for business scheduling. There is a challenge though when viewing a long schedule that shows lots of rows of text and numbers. Its difficult to get a 'feel' for schedule impacts on the business. A minor job and a major job have the same visual significance until you look at the job specific details. My point is that spreadsheets aren't great for relaying capacity information. It would nice if you could easily create a graphical version of the data so you can see impact.

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