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Spreadsheets are the problem. What’s the answer?

A look at how Management Information Tools can help your manufacturing business.

There is a saying that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Perhaps the modern equivalent for information systems is that everything looks like a spreadsheet. When people come up against a data problem, they’ll often resort to Microsoft Excel as the solution. It’s easy to see why: spreadsheets are easy to create, and they’re easy to share. Most people today have some familiarity with spreadsheets, so they’re approachable. And the software is only a click away, accessible on most office computers.

When processes need to be changed, people often reach for a spreadsheet rather than doing the hard work of reshaping the way the organisation works. But the downside is you can end up with data being siloed in different parts of the business, and with people modifying spreadsheets in different ways to serve their needs. As the spreadsheets are shared, people add new layers of customisations, and the spreadsheets evolve into something few people can understand. It’s hard to have confidence in the data accuracy if rekeying is involved, or formulas are being modified on the fly.

We’ve worked with manufacturing companies in the food and drinks industry to deliver management information systems that liberate them from spreadsheets. As with many businesses in food and drink, one of the challenges is managing production levels and shop floor resourcing. If they hold too much stock, they risk having to waste it because it’s perishable. If they don’t make enough, they risk losing orders and maybe even customers who might defect to another supplier. For each order, the company needs to ensure they have the right mix of people and machinery to fulfill it. Typically, separate spreadsheets are used for different data e.g. managing orders and shop floor staffing.

We’ve provide management information tools that give a unified view of company’s data, and streamlines their manufacturing process. Typically, they automatically receive order information from their financial system (e.g. Sage, Oracle) and enables them to enter their resource data. A level of automation can be introduced, if applicable, to the scheduling process with resources allocated to satisfy orders, and it’s easy for the management team to understand the business’s status at any time. Crucially, having a single view of the data makes it possible to forecast future demand, resourcing and revenues. If anyone needs the information, they can just log in to access it. They don’t need to hunt for the latest version of the spreadsheet first.

Introducing such a system is not always easy. Those who use spreadsheets often want to keep them. People like to solve problems, and they feel like they made a difference when they develop a particularly tricky spreadsheet formula. In reality, the problems they solve don’t even exist if you’re using the right tools, and the solutions tend to increase complexity, and the associated risk of errors. It becomes a vicious circle of increasing complexity, with workarounds layered on top of each other. The energy spent wrangling the spreadsheet could have been better invested in other process improvements.

That’s why we put people at the heart of our projects to develop management information systems: the solution will only succeed if it meets all the process and data needs that the team has, and if they’re happy to adopt it. Anything that falls short will drive them back to spreadsheets. By involving spreadsheet fans early on, we can secure buy-in for the new solution and ensure it does everything they want it to. Our consultancy can uncover potential process improvements too: when we bring people together, we sometimes identify unnecessary duplication or rekeying that we can eliminate through automatic data capture. We don’t develop the software until we’ve understood the process, and worked out how to map that into the new solution.

If you’d like to find out how Argenta can help you to streamline your management information systems, contact us through the website or give us a call on 0121 318 6363.

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