Spreadsheet programs are some of the most universally abused software across the business world. The purpose of a spreadsheet is to organize data, and then manipulate that data with automatic calculations. The versatility of spreadsheets is why they’re often the first solution people try when they’re faced with challenges in maintenance planning and scheduling.
Building a schedule with a spreadsheet program like Excel is transformational if you’re used to scheduling on paper. For speed, ease-of-use, and communication, a program like Excel beats paper systems every single time.
However, spreadsheets can only take you so far. Moving to a software solution built for the need of maintenance planning and scheduling will transform your processes in the same way that switching to Excel from a paper system did, but more so. A purpose-built solution like Prometheus Planning & Scheduling means your schedulers can schedule more accurately, account for break-in work, and achieve higher labor utilization than they possibly could in a spreadsheet.
There are undeniable advantages to using spreadsheets, but most of those advantages are only in comparison to paper systems (or nothing). Purpose-built scheduling systems win over spreadsheets on every level. This remains true even when we look at the supposed “advantages” of scheduling with spreadsheets.
Spreadsheets are cheap and relatively easy to use. Even if you don’t have much experience using a program like Excel, there is a plethora of free training resources available on YouTube and other sites. Spreadsheets are easy to set up as well, and you can choose your own conditional formatting. These are good attributes, but as we’ll see below, a solution built for maintenance scheduling wins out in almost every area.
Spreadsheets also have their downsides. They're slow, they don't write back to your system of record or update in real-time, lack accuracy, reduce accountability, don't support mobility, and don't scale very well.
Scheduling with spreadsheets is much better than not scheduling at all. However, the supposed “advantages” of spreadsheets aren’t as beneficial as they seem.
Below we’ve collected some of the most common myths about the advantages of spreadsheets.
Spreadsheets are indeed inexpensive. In fact, the capital expenditure involved in using a spreadsheet for maintenance is often zero. This is because your organization likely already has a spreadsheet solution that you can use. Licenses for common office software are often site or company-wide, so you probably don’t even need an additional license. Google Sheets is a completely free option available to you in the rare case that your organization doesn’t have a spreadsheet solution.
It might seem like cost is the real trump card for spreadsheet scheduling, but that isn’t the case. Yes, you will certainly pay more for a purpose-built scheduling solution than you will for Microsoft Excel. But the real question should be “how much will our professional scheduling software allow us to save?” Your solution vendor should be able to demonstrate exactly how and when you can anticipate a positive return on investment in terms of time saved, increased wrench, decrease in unplanned downtime, and so on.
By implementing a purpose-built scheduling solution from Prometheus Group, Hemlock Semiconductor was able to save thousands by increasing efficiency and reducing the burden of maintenance scheduling. Check out our case study for more details, including how the solution allowed them to greatly increase their preventive maintenance program.
A solution like Excel may seem cheap in comparison, but it simply doesn’t have the capabilities you need to find efficiencies in your scheduling process. You won’t pay much for it, but it won’t give you back much either. Purpose-built solutions save a tremendous amount of scheduler time while empowering them to be more effective — which in turn saves time and bolster effectiveness for the maintenance crews.
Spreadsheets certainly may have their trickier aspects, and there’s a big difference in knowledge between a power user and one who is starting out fresh. However, the very ubiquity of spreadsheet programs means that most staff members have at least some familiarity with them. This acquaintance with the system usually leads to quick and often enthusiastic adoption by users.
This is another advantage that stops being attractive when you compare spreadsheets to a system designed for maintenance scheduling. Excel and similar programs are not designed for the needs of maintenance and were never intended to serve as any kind of scheduling tools.
Spreadsheets lack many of the features that make purpose-built solutions easy to use, like established iconography, robust search capabilities, and the ability to make bulk changes to work orders.
You will almost certainly have a steeper learning curve when it comes to a dedicated maintenance scheduling solution than you would experience with spreadsheets. It also takes longer to learn to pilot a jet than it does to ride a bicycle. The jet has capabilities and features that the bicycle’s designer wouldn’t dream of including. The learning curve may be steeper, but you’ll get where you want to go much faster and more efficiently.
The resources and tutorials available are legion and most of them are available for free. YouTube alone has hundreds of videos on how to get the most out of Microsoft Excel and similar programs. There are even videos that give advice on how to schedule maintenance using spreadsheets.
This is good news if you’re really dedicated to using spreadsheets, but it kind of falls apart when you compare it to professional maintenance scheduling software. Free and publicly available isn’t necessarily an advantage if it lacks the power and flexibility to match the unique needs of your business and the best practices of your industry, and the regulatory needs of your region. Vendors will typically provide training to ensure that you’re using the software correctly and getting the most out of it. Your vendors should want you to succeed. If they’re not offering a “train the trainer” program or e-learning on their products, you might want to look at a different vendor.
You probably won’t even have to talk to IT! Setting up maintenance scheduling in Excel or a similar program doesn’t even require that you know the program all that well. Any Excel knowledge you bring to the table will certainly help, but you may even be able to find downloadable maintenance templates online.
This might look like a win for spreadsheets, but really most of the set-up and configuration of a purpose-built scheduling tool should be on your vendor’s shoulders. If you choose the right system, they can adapt it to your organization, not the other way around.
Maintenance professionals often cite this capability when asked why they like scheduling in Excel or other spreadsheets. Conditional formatting allows you to set up your spreadsheets to make it easier to read at a glance. If you want emergency work orders to display in red or for completed work orders to have a strikethrough to show their status, you can easily do this with a spreadsheet.
This capability is so popular that you’ll find it in many dedicated CMMS systems, so spreadsheets don’t really have a clear advantage here. In fact, with the right system, you’ll find that you can include conditional formatting that’s much deeper and richer than the basic formatting available with spreadsheets. You’ll still be to tell what’s going on with a single glance, but that single glance will give you much greater insight into your scheduling and your assets.
For more on this, check out “Conditional Formatting: Does Your Planning and Scheduling Solution Speak Your Visual Lingo?”
At the risk of repeating ourselves, the disadvantages below are in comparison to purpose-built solutions for maintenance planning and scheduling. Scheduling via spreadsheet always has advantages over paper-based scheduling, just like a paper-based system will always have advantages over not scheduling at all.
Scheduling maintenance with a spreadsheet can be very time consuming. We’re not even counting the time it takes to either build or change a template and design all the macros you’ll need. Even once that is accomplished, scheduling with a spreadsheet does not offer any of the time-saving attributes that maintenance schedulers need to be productive. These can include features such as one-click scheduling, bulk changes to work orders, and much more, depending on the system. Spreadsheets cannot offer this level of functionality.
Your spreadsheet may have all the necessary data but getting that data into your organization’s ERP software is time consuming and tedious. Since the spreadsheet doesn’t update the information in your ERP, this must be done manually, and the chance for errors is greatly increased.
Using spreadsheets means you’re almost certainly going to wind up with bad data at some point, but this assumes that someone is doing those manual updates. It’s very easy for someone to find an excuse to skip a boring and tedious chore like manual data entry. There’s always going to be something that seems more important right at the moment. “I’ll just skip it for today and get caught up tomorrow.” Tomorrow they’ve got twice as much to do and the same reasons to skip it again. Before too long, not bothering to enter the updates just becomes the way things are done.
Spreadsheets only update when someone remembers to do it. In the best-case scenario, the spreadsheets will be updated every day. However, we rarely get to live the best-cast scenario. Spreadsheets also do not offer any way to track maintenance as it proceeds. Did Crew A finish work on Central Pump 1 this morning? Did complications arise that meant the job had to be extended? Were parts missing? Using spreadsheets instead of a dedicated maintenance system means you will have to wait for answers, rather than getting the data when it will do the most good.
It’s not that a spreadsheet is inherently inaccurate, but frequent manual changes, copy/paste errors, and other tasks like populating field introduce more opportunity for errors. This simple fact is worsened by points two and three above. Spreadsheets are also not useful in terms of providing business intelligence. You can certainly use data cleaning and data extraction techniques to get some insights out of a spreadsheet, but many purpose-built maintenance solutions provide at least some business intelligence as a matter of course.
It’s easy to account for changes made to a spreadsheet hosted on your personal hard drive. However, a document that no one else can see is not very useful for maintenance scheduling. You can certainly set-up spreadsheets to live in the cloud (either public or private) and you can give certain people access to either read or edit the spreadsheet. The problem is that these capabilities don’t go far enough for the purposes of maintenance. Spreadsheets typically cannot restrict certain users from editing certain fields while allowing them to edit others. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.
Depending on how it’s set up, this may mean that technicians can view work orders but not edit them in any way. You certainly don’t want them altering the work orders on a whim, but a good solution will give them the capability to add notes or at least mark the work order as complete and enter the time it took.
One solution is to just give everyone in the maintenance department editing capability and tell them to only make very specific changes to very specific fields. Excel and most other spreadsheet programs have a Track Changes feature that will also allow you to see who made which changes. It sounds good at first, but there are at least two distinct problems with this. First, any of the changes that were made are still made, and it may not be possible to undo them. Turning the Track Changes feature on may tell you who accidentally deleted dozens of work orders, but it’s not going to get them back. Second, if you can turn the Track Changes feature on, someone else can turn it off. How many untracked changes will be made before someone notices and switches it back on?
A big part of this simply down to the GUI used in common spreadsheet programs, but it’s a problem, nevertheless. Spreadsheets can be very complicated and difficult to understand when viewed on a tablet or mobile device.
The trend towards mobile and away from paper is well-established and only likely to grow. Going mobile unlocks key benefits for asset-intensive organizations, so you’ve probably already implemented a mobile solution or you’re strongly considering it. Mobile maintenance gives you better data, increased visibility, more flexibility, and increased wrench time. For details on the benefits of mobility for maintenance, please see "5 Benefits of Going Mobile for Asset Intensive Organizations."
A spreadsheet can be an admirable solution for scheduling the activities of a few people at a small plant or site. They are less well-suited as the workforce grows into the dozens, and then into the hundreds. Finding a particular data point in a spreadsheet intended to schedule the activities of dozens of professionals on many different sites or assets is kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack when the haystack itself is made out of needles.
Prometheus Planning & Scheduling is designed for the needs of maintenance and asset management. For more information on how Prometheus Group solutions enhance your capabilities, please click here.