We know Formula 1 teams build the most advanced cars on this planet. Each of these cars – we are informed by this article – cost $12-16mn. Apparently, these teams operate with a budget cap of $145 million. And yet, these teams use Excel software to track all their wonderful high tech gadgets and cutting edge software: “Starting in early 2023, Williams team principal James Vowles and chief technical officer Pat Fry started reworking the F1 team’s systems for designing and building its car. It would be painful, but the pain would keep the team from falling even further behind. As they started figuring out new processes and systems, they encountered what they considered a core issue: Microsoft Excel.

The Williams car build workbook, with roughly 20,000 individual parts, was “a joke,” Vowles recently told The Race. “Impossible to navigate and impossible to update.” This colossal Excel file lacked information on how much each of those parts cost and the time it took to produce them, along with whether the parts were already on order. Prioritizing one car section over another, from manufacture through inspection, was impossible, Vowles suggested.

“When you start tracking now hundreds of thousands of components through your organization moving around, an Excel spreadsheet is useless,” Vowles told The Race. Because of the multiple states each part could be in—ordered, backordered, inspected, returned—humans are often left to work out the details. “And once you start putting that level of complexity in, which is where modern Formula 1 is, the Excel spreadsheet falls over, and humans fall over. And that’s exactly where we are.”

The consequences of this row/column chaos, and the resulting hiccups, were many. Williams missed early pre-season testing in 2019. Workers sometimes had to physically search the team’s factory for parts. The wrong parts got priority, other parts came late, and some piled up. And yet transitioning to a modern tracking system was “viciously expensive,” Fry told The Race, and making up for the painful process required “humans pushing themselves to the absolute limits and breaking.””

The article goes on to explain that Excel has been held responsible for a lot of other screw-ups: “Spreadsheet errors in recent years have led to police doxxing, false trainee test failures, an accidental $10 million crypto transfer, and bank shares sold at sorely undervalued prices. Spreadsheets are sometimes called the “dark matter” of large organizations, being ever-present and far too relied upon despite 90 percent of larger sheets being likely to have a major error.”

So, if Excel is so prone to generate errors, all of us still using it every day. John Purdy’s article gives us an insight into the ubiquity of Excel in corporate life: “When Sebastian Anthony embedded with the Renault team, he reported back for Ars in 2017 that Renault Sport Formula One’s Excel design and build spreadsheet was 77,000 lines long…

Every F1 team has its own software setup, Anthony wrote, but they have to integrate with a lot of other systems: Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and wind tunnel results, rapid prototyping and manufacturing, and inventory. This leaves F1 teams “susceptible to the plague of legacy software,” Anthony wrote …

“If PowerPoint is the universal language businesses use to talk to one another, their internal monologue is Excel,” Banks wrote. The issue is that all the systems and processes a business touches are complex and generate all kinds of data, but Excel is totally cool with taking in all of it. Or at least 1,048,576 rows of it.”

Effectively, Excel gives an appearance of structure and underlying order when neither is present in a company.

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