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Are You Putting Too Much Faith in Spreadsheets?

2 min read
Mar 11, 2021

Spreadsheets such as Excel are awesome tools—when used for the right purposes. Excel was designed to tabulate and chart data, but because it’s inexpensive and ubiquitous, it gets used for all sorts of things when it’s not really the best choice.

It’s used to manually track employee training, resulting in inaccuracies when employees complete training but forget to update the spreadsheet. It serves as a log for documenting findings remediation, making it tricky to stay on task since there are no proactive reminders as to what needs to be done. It stores important information about complaints but is then downloaded by employees, resulting in multiple versions of the spreadsheet and no source of truth.

These types of spreadsheet errors are hard to catch. They can go unnoticed for long periods, allowing problems to compound until a small error becomes a serious problem.

Related: Fintechs Lead the Way for Digital Transformation in Financial Institutions

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here are three of the biggest problems caused by spreadsheets over the past year. 

  1. “Unfathomable” spreadsheet loses 40,000 complaints. When Bristol City in the U.K. upgraded its complaint system, as many as 40,000 of its old complaints were moved over to an “unfathomable” spreadsheet that made it “virtually impossible” to find information about cases under investigation. Government employees would spend days or weeks looking for information in the unwieldy spreadsheet—even after a new employee was added to help with the task. Meanwhile, complaints entered into the new system are easy to track and resolve.

    Lesson learned: Spreadsheets can be great for managing large amounts of data, but not so great at large amounts of task management.

Related: The $30 Million Spreadsheet: The hidden costs of spreadsheet mistakes—and their mistakes

  1. UK health service discovers the limits of spreadsheets. Did you know there is a maximum size for spreadsheets? Excel maxes out at 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns. It’s a lesson Public Health England (PHE), the government agency overseeing the U.K.’s COVID-19 response, learned the hard way. Reports suggest that PHE underreported around 16,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to its national tracking numbers in October 2020 because a spreadsheet had reached its max size and was unable to update.

    At the time U.K. cases were just beginning to surge, rising from around 7,000 cases per day at the beginning of October to 22,000 at the end of the month—making the addition of 16,000 cases a significant number.

    Lesson learned: There are limits to what can be done with spreadsheets. If you aren’t aware of those limitations, you can set yourself up for failure.

Related: Spreadsheets Aren’t Free: 5 Hidden Costs

  1. Spreadsheet error delays flights over false safety concerns. A spreadsheet error caused Southwest to pause flights at Midway International Airport in Chicago in January 2021. An error created during a system update caused issues with aircraft weight and balance data. The airline said the error was only a paperwork problem and did not imperil any flights—but it had to be a stressful few hours while the airline sorted out the source of the problem. Plus, it incurred the cost of flight delays and bad press.

    Lesson learned: When different versions of the same document exist, it can result in inconsistencies that cause stress, extra work, and costly delays.

If you’re using spreadsheets for complicated, non-financial tasks, take a moment to ask yourself if using this “free” tool is really saving you money. You may be surprised by the answer.

Looking for a better way to manage your files? Read 5 Ways to Show Your Files Some Love—and Better Manage Risk


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