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The problem with spreadsheets for field inspections

September 29, 2020

When you think about field inspections, what comes to mind? 

Probably something like this:

The issue with conducting field inspections with pen and paper is that it’s impractical. It creates a long list of problems and potential problems: 

  • Illegible handwriting leads to data inaccuracies
  • Paper is easily damaged or lost, necessitating rework
  • Transcription takes time and can introduce errors
  • You can only capture what can be written down (no pictures, video, etc.), and if you do take a photo, you have to match it to the correct paperwork later

And data collected on paper can’t really be analyzed. You can shuffle through your papers and try to get a sense of what’s going on, but if you want actionable intelligence, the data has to be entered into a computer program. 

Those are some of the reasons companies are looking to modernize their processes and get away from using pen and paper in the field. And when they do, they often start with spreadsheets.

The truth about spreadsheets

Unfortunately, spreadsheets aren’t much better. 

Imagine you have a checklist with a few dozen items in it. Spreadsheets don’t render easily on mobile devices, so you have to scroll up and down and side to side to enter the data in the right place. It’s easy to transpose entries or miss a typographical error. 

Here’s an example: 

Our partners at Carrington Risk conduct inspections on their clients’ properties, checking to make sure there are no hazards on site and things are generally as they should be. Their clients then take the reports and send them to their insurance companies to make sure they get the lowest possible premium. 

One time, Carrington was given a building to inspect that appeared to be located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — someone had switched the latitude and longitude for the property.

Since spreadsheets don’t automatically capture geolocation, it has to be entered manually — so it’s easy to understand how the mistake occurred. But if it had gone to the insurance company (which looks for things like whether a structure is located in a flood plain) like that, they would have seen a building in the ocean, which would have called all the data in the report into question (and possibly the property owner, too).

With spreadsheets, you’re working without a net. There’s no validation of your inputs, so if you type in the wrong information, it’s easy to miss. If someone accidentally hits the wrong key or hits “paste” when they meant “cut,” you’re going to end up with bad data. 

And, like paper, spreadsheets don’t scale for reporting and analytics. You don’t get real-time visibility into what’s going on in the field to manage performance and remediate problems quickly. 

Finally, multimedia is still difficult. You could take pictures on your phone and then enter the filenames into the spreadsheet, but is that a good use of your time?

The worst of both worlds

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of using paper or spreadsheets for field inspections is that in most cases, if you’re using one, you’re using both: someone collects the data on paper, and that data gets transcribed into Excel or Google Sheets. 

So what happens when someone looks at the data and says, “I don’t think that looks right?” Do you go back to the paper it was originally collected with? (Assuming you can find it.) What if someone noticed what they thought was an obvious error and corrected it during the transcription process? How do you trace the steps of every person who came in contact with that data to find the source of the error? 

Don’t get us wrong: Spreadsheets have their place. They’re great for sharing and aggregating data. What they’re not good for is mobile field inspections.

Better field inspections

For efficient, accurate data, you’ll get the best results by swapping paper and spreadsheets for a field inspection management platform like Fulcrum. 

With Fulcrum, data is entered once on a mobile device — whether you have cellular or WiFi service or not. Once your data syncs to the cloud, it’s instantly available to anyone with access to your account. No waiting for transcription, no data-entry errors, no data gaps caused by errant coffee stains or torn or lost paper.

And your field inspectors can take photos, videos, and even audio recordings that are automatically linked to the correct records in the app. You don’t have to try to match them up later. 

Best of all, data that is collected using Fulcrum can automatically kick off workflow processes — like sending an email or SMS message notifying your teammates when action is required — or send reports directly from the field  that take your productivity to the next level. But that’s a topic for another day

Want to know more? Request a free demo of the Fulcrum platform today.