The Spreadsheet or the People?

Me: “Sir, we just finished the assessment and did well. Why are you starting the same drill over again?”

Him: “We need to get the numbers up on this spreadsheet.”

“The crew’s exhausted. They need a break.” There was a moment where we just stared at each other.

“Okay,” he said, “but we’re back at it tomorrow. The spreadsheet has empty spaces in it, and we need to fill them in.”

Again, this is a real simplification of a conversation that had lots of Navy jargon and likely some profanity. We’d just finished demonstrating something to the people we answer to, did well, and not three hours later, we were doing it again.

That silence between us wasn’t some battle of wills, but a pretty clear demonstration of the conflict between the spreadsheet and the staff, the bottom line and people who do the brunt of the work. This is fun to write about because it exists in almost every profession, especially when there are two people who have different jobs in making an organization successful.

My job – the people

His job – the spreadsheet

And here’s where the conflict comes in: we’re both doing our jobs the best we can with the time and people we have. We’re two parts of the same success, but it’s hard to see that sometimes.

I didn’t want to write a rant, but that’s what came to mind when I thought of this title and the article that would come with it. The current count is almost 100 other topics to write about, but I kept coming back to this one. Which is more important, the spreadsheet, or the people?

The people are important, and how dare anyone just keep grinding them into the ground for the sake of the spreadsheet? I’ll ball my fist and shake it at the sky, and everyone can agree with me, because that’s what people generally do. But, as much as I wish it weren’t true, and as much as I wish we could all just relax a bit and enjoy our success, we really do need to get that darn spreadsheet filled in.

Any organization has a metric that they expect reported upwards, and it isn’t just a list of busy work. In medicine and food service, it might seem like a waste of time to check every temperature of every refrigerator or freezer every day, and sometimes twice a day. The number on the sheet might not seem important when it’s the same every time. And yes, there’s always the ‘what if’ argument. I won’t use it because I never like hearing it. It’s absolutely true, but that’s not the point. That number in the block every day means you understand that the routine of checking the temperatures, running drills, or daily maintenance, is important. Go into an airport bathroom and look on the wall where someone has initialed off every hour they’ve cleaned it. If you spend days at a time in airports, like I do, you’ll understand how important those initials are.

That spreadsheet we have to fill in and report to people on high has changed a hundred times over the years. They’ve learned about the organization, found out what makes us successful long before you or I arrived, and boiled it down to a measurable item with an empty box next to it. And yes, they expect you to do whatever that task is and put a check in the box. They expect it on time, and they don’t care if you’re tired, or if your car broke down, or if you’ve had a great day and want to celebrate.

As much as it can drive some of us crazy, as much as it’s driven me crazy for a lot longer than I’d like to admit, that empty block on the page is important. In my profession, the spreadsheet is tied to training that keeps us proficient, maintains equipment, and communicates that we’re ready to go into harm’s way. Whether it’s billable hours, appointments per day, maintenance, or testing performed, those reports and checklists are important. It gives a metric to all our hard work, and gives us direction towards what our leadership knows will make us successful.

And for those who want a straight answer, the people are the single most important thing to the organization. The spreadsheet, the metric, the paperwork we report up that drives a lot of our efforts, that’s the job we’re being paid to do, and we should take it seriously.

Today, as we brought up the same list with the same drills yet again to find a plan to keep at it, the person driving all that said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it done before dinner so people can get some rest.” After a week or so of trying to slow the decisions down for a minute and really look at the lists, we seem to have found balance, which is the best anyone can hope for.

If you’re new to an organization, the sooner you know the spreadsheet, the better. If you don’t, your upward mobility will likely be stalled until you do.

– How well do you know the spreadsheet or metric that drives your work?

– Have you really dissected it to see what’s there and why?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.