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Part I – What We Lose Relying on Excel Spreadsheets

Thirty years into the wireless industry some things never change. Whether tens or thousands of sites, a new site build or equipment mod, a macro or small cell initiative-we use Excel spreadsheets to manage our projects. Why? The obvious answer is Excel is highly customizable to your needs, easy to use and well understood by users. There is no need for implementation as one would find with a more typical software system installation. Virtually everyone in the industry knows how to use at least its basic functionality so formal training is not required, and even if you began unfamiliar with Excel most can quickly pick it up. More importantly, every region and every manager has differing needs on how it wants to define process flows, collect information, and organize data for managing and reporting purposes. Excel allows easy creation, movement and manipulation of data fields so each region or manager can collect, organize and view the data in the way best suited to its or their needs. The downside of this flexibility is that everyone has their own spreadsheet, their own way to present the information, leading to spreadsheet chaos, inconsistent process enforcement, missing metadata and endless meetings and conversations to sort it all out.

Don’t get me wrong, Excel is a great software program. Truly. But it has major drawbacks when it is used as a project management tool for geographically and organizationally disparate resources and external vendors – something it was never designed to do. The end result is that, when used in ways it was never intended, Excel impedes accountability and increases cycle times for critical projects.

Hours upon hours can be spent comparing previous spreadsheets to existing ones to determine what has been altered.

In an Excel spreadsheet, generally only one person can input data at a time. Spreadsheets must either be emailed from one vendor to the next to the next for input or someone has to take the time to combine different spreadsheets together into a single master spreadsheet after each vendor has made changes to his or her version. Just the time spent to send Excel versions back and forth and then review emails to determine which version is most up to date eats up critical minutes in a day. There is no time and date stamp capability with Excel so there is no easy way to see what data fields have been adjusted by whom when. This inability becomes especially problematic when a vendor has changed forecast dates or other critical data without making clear to carrier personnel what was changed. Hours upon hours can be spent comparing previous spreadsheets to existing ones to determine what has been altered. On a spreadsheet with hundreds or even thousands of sites and a project with twenty, thirty, forty different vendors, data checking can be so unwieldy and so time-consuming with other pressing needs that it is not done at all. Data integrity–critical to managing projects, holding vendors and carrier personnel accountable, identifying project-wide problems and highlighting bottlenecks and trends– breaks down, reports become confusing or untrustworthy and cycle times expand.

With Excel, project management, particularly the farther one is away from the day-to-day details of a project, is much more challenging than need be. Progress is rarely communicated real-time or on-demand. Actual completion dates end up receiving management focus while target and forecast dates often judged uncertain, constantly changing or inaccurate are ignored. Issue management using spreadsheets is most often reactionary and rarely laser focused on management priorities. Surfacing an issue usually must wait for a meeting to sort out and resolve as the data reliability and accessibility must be confirmed by the involved parties before action can be taken. Workflow analysis is tedious when projects are managed by so many different spreadsheets and there is a loss of process integrity similar to the loss of data integrity referenced above. Carrier personnel often run three, four, five spreadsheets at once for a single project. Predictive analytics critical to driving shorter cycle times is sacrificed when we manage and track projects with Excel. But even with all these drawbacks it remains the fallback solution for the wireless industry throughout the world.

Clearly a new solution is needed. We all know equipment and site upgrades are accelerating on the macro network. Most deployment teams are handling several upgrades at once plus a few specialty projects such as generator installs and fiber or microwave add-ons. Added to that burden is the need to deploy small cells both exterior and in-building to satisfy capacity needs. Carriers cannot afford to double or triple their network staff and hope to manage this growing burden more efficiently, but must reduce cycle times, especially small cell cycle times, to meet customer capacity and coverage demands and keep up with the competition. “Doing more with less” is not practical with current solutions.

Excel spreadsheets can continue to be used to manage all of this work, but more than likely cycle times will get longer as carrier personnel become further overwhelmed. The question remains: Is there an alternative? We think there is.

(Stay tuned for Part II-Why Current Network Software Solutions Fail to Deliver on the Promise)