Reliable spreadsheets at Achmea

Achmea wanted to enhance the reliability of spreadsheets. To create awareness, business control, financial control and insurance risk receive spreadsheet assurance trainings. These preventive trainings improve data quality and the reliability of the spreadsheets. This also makes the spreadsheets easier to transfer.

By Paul Sedee, July 2016

Achmea makes extensive use of spreadsheets, and the Business Control Unit is aware that errors can be generated. “Excel is not built according to current guidelines, in a protected environment,” says Paul Sedee of Finext. In order to inject fresh thinking on spreadsheets, Finext organized three trainings on spreadsheet assurance.

Preventive

These are preventive trainings and serve the purpose of preventing errors. “It is a good thing to have high quality standards for spreadsheets,” says Paul. “After all, you rely on their results. The data provided by the spreadsheets is considered to be the truth, regardless of its quality.”

“The data provided by the spreadsheets is considered to be the truth, so be critical of the quality.”

“Making a spreadsheet is not rocket science, but the trainings show how easy it is to make mistakes,” Paul continues. Transferability is also important. “You perceive things from own frame of reference, which makes transferability complicated during holidays or sick leave.” Spreadsheet assurance is more than having excellent Excel skills. “Excel specialists deliver the most complex spreadsheets, but there is no one to take over his job. Keep things as simple as you possibly can,” Paul stresses.

Functionality, technical aspects and management

During the spreadsheet assurance trainings, 3 topics are covered; functionality, technical aspects and management. The first topic is dedicated to the principles and the basis of the spreadsheet. “We line out how the spreadsheet is constructed. What are the data streams that run from A to B?, what structures do you recognize and what happens to a data stream that is sent from A to B?” says Paul. “A calculation in the spreadsheet consists of a number of steps. “If you fail to understand it, it becomes a Pandora’s box that provides you with a random number. Paul makes the comparison with building a house: You first lay the foundation, before you can continue to build.

The next step is dedicated to the technical aspects; getting to know the possibilities and their logical application. “Hidden tabs and the use of color need to be understandable for others as well,” Paul says.

Finally, it is necessary to maintain the spreadsheet. “You don’t want to build the same thing a 100 times over, but you do want to safeguard the quality. A spreadsheet offers added value for the organization, provided it is rolled out in a uniform way. Good version management is essential. With 6 users for one single spreadsheet, you will soon have 6 different versions of the truth.”

Spreadsheet analyzer

The training also made use of Infotron, a scientific tool developed in cooperation with the Technological University of Delft. Spreadsheet analyzer provides a technical validation of the spreadsheets. “The technical validation helps to create a reliable environment,” Paul says. Analyzer is a technical approach to assess the three elements. The tools visualize the data stream and assess the potential risks of a number of technical aspects. “We look at complex formulas, the number of comments in the formula and a number of hard values. For instance, is the VAT percentage correct? And to what extent is it linked to external sources? These give rise to additional risks, because it can lead to different versions. During the maintenance phase, the analyzer provides insight in the external sources and internal distribution tools, such as Sharepoint.

“By improving the reliability of the numbers, you become a better sparring partner for the business and it provides better visibility.”

Prior to the training, a number of existing spreadsheets has been assessed with the spreadsheet analyzer. “This provided us with information on which spreadsheets carry a high level of risk. We used these for the training to analyze them with the group.” It is important to have an open and constructive atmosphere with a healthy dose of tension, created by the will to be critical, to receive feedback and to improve quality.

Quality and transferability

The results of the new solution are very well received by Achmea. “We see a change of attitude and behavior, because people look at their own work differently,” is what the Head Business Control has told Paul. People also encourage each other, which contributes to the quality and the transferability.

Insight in the quality of spreadsheets is essential for a controller, according to Paul. “By improving the reliability of the numbers, you become a better sparring partner for the business and it enables better visibility.”

Paul does have a final comment concerning the use of spreadsheets. “Spreadsheets aren’t always the best solution. When they become to complex, deploying a Performance Management application can be a better option. Go for simplicity.”

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