In the digital age, it’s time to put the abacus away

Now more than ever it seems increasingly important to not lose sight of our small successes. Big wins are great, but the cumulative effects of multiple small wins are often underestimated. Along this line, a short interaction I had with somebody last week makes for a great example worth sharing. It resulted in the retirement of a $16,200 abacus that they didn’t even realize they had, and left both of us feeling pretty good about it. The main reason I am sharing this experience is because it is a rather common situation in my line of work that I often take for granted, but shouldn’t. A lot of people come across similar situations all the time, and don’t even know it. We need to constantly remind each other to look for them.

Here’s the rundown:

Following a meeting with a prospective client I was introduced to their lead analyst and go-to-guru for anything Excel.  After a brief conversation the analyst was excited to show me a commercial evaluation he was working on. He opened a spreadsheet with a summary of various bid rates and information received from several suppliers. The summary was very well done and looked great.  It contained all the necessary information, but something subtle caught my eye. The summary appeared to be a mix of text and formulas in regular cells, but the layout was very similar to what a pivot table would provide. We didn’t have a lot of time to dig too deep, but I was curious so I had to ask a few questions. The following was our conversation:

Me:  Looks great, you obviously put some effort into this. I am curious if you used a pivot table to produce part of this summary.

Analyst: No, we follow a process to do it this way so all of our evaluations are consistent and the results are more presentable to paste into PowerPoint.

Me:  Sounds reasonable. I agree that pivot tables aren’t a nice-looking end product, but are you familiar with using them?

Analyst:  A little bit. I really haven’t had the time to get comfortable with them yet. I feel they are mostly overrated, and I am able to put these evaluations together pretty quickly.

Me:  How quick is pretty quick?

Analyst:  About a half day if there isn’t too much going on.

Me:  And how many of these do you do in a month?

Analyst:  It fluctuates, but between 6 and 10 per month.

Me:  Would you mind if I took a quick look to see what a pivot table looks like using your data?

Analyst:  Sure, no problem.

After he passed me the keyboard and mouse across the table, I copied his data to a new workbook.  I then converted the data into a table and created a pivot table that matched the layout of his summary. He was 100% correct that the pivot table looked unattractive for a presentation. However, I took it one step further by copying/pasting the pivot table’s data onto a new worksheet. I did this so I could calculate the last few numbers and then apply formatting to make my summary match his. Total time, just under 5 minutes. We both arrived at the same destination but used a different path to get there. One path takes 4 hours, the other path takes 5 minutes! With a somewhat stunned look on his face, he smiled and said, “I know what I am going to Google tonight.”  Sure enough he did, and the next day he gave me a call to let me know that after working his way through a few video tutorials on YouTube he is well on his way to using pivot tables like a pro. I asked what it felt like to have a new tool in his toolbox, to which he replied, “its like moving from the abacus to the digital calculator”.

The immediate takeaway:

The process he was following was his metaphorical “abacus”, and he stuck with it because it was familiar and the status quo. The success he banked last week was that he embraced the opportunity to learn a new process using an unfamiliar tool. This will save him an incredible amount of time and allow him to deliver results faster than most people realize is possible.

“But wait, you mentioned a $16,200 abacus. Where did that number come from?”

For those of you that are interested in digging a little deeper into the cumulative impact of this relatively small breakthrough, please read on…

Business impact:

This individual’s excitement about discovering a new feature in Excel is pretty easy to understand, but many people will say something like “so what!?  He just discovered how to use a pivot table, no big deal”. However, it is a big deal, and not just for his own amusement. Introducing this new skill has an immediate effect on his performance at work, and this is a big win for his employer as well.  Let’s do some quick math to quantify the commercial impact of this efficiency gain.

The image above shows a simple calculation of the estimated annual costs of creating evaluation summaries using both the previous process and the new process. For demonstration purposes I have assumed an hourly wage of $45 per hour that includes all benefits and payroll burdens to the employer. Calculating the cumulative annual costs of the prior process demonstrates there are considerable resources dedicated to the creation of commercial evaluation summaries, both in terms of time and money (384 hours, valued at $17,280). If introducing a process improvement can free up some of that time, then resources can be reallocated to look for additional opportunities to further increase efficiencies.

In this example, the total cumulative impact of introducing the simple concept of using a pivot table to generate the foundation for a commercial evaluation has freed up 360 hours per year, per analyst (worth approximately $16,200… hence the $16,200 metaphorical abacus).  Just think of all the other things you can do with an additional 360 hours (9 work weeks) per year. Suddenly all those things you ‘don’t have time for’ just became within reach.

A question to reflect on:

What “abacuses” are you still clinging to because you feel you don’t have the time to learn a new skill or familiarize yourself with a new tool? From now on, each time you catch yourself saying ‘I don’t have time to learn how to do that’, take a step back to determine if you really don’t have time, or if you are just moving beans back and forth on your abacus out of habit.