Lessons Learned About #Tableau From The Excel Battlefield



I have received a few comments from a story I recently wrote but didn’t want to publish. Those comments pushed me down a path to this story, which I also had no intention of writing. However, it isn’t bragging if you can do it, and I learned a long time ago that sometimes you just have to tell it the way that it is. Therefore….

To the person(s) who still believes that Excel pivot tables are the best way to work, I offer this story to you.


For nearly 8 years I worked as a process improvement consultant, starting in late 2007. It was in Feb 2008 when I began using Tableau.

As part of our work, we always had two consultants independently calculate experimental results, starting from raw data through to the end of the experiment. For some experiments, that might mean data processing could have taken a day, for others, several days.

Generally, I was teamed with a senior consultant that had about 20 years of experience doing this type of process improvement work. He was (and still is) an absolute Microsoft Excel master. In fact, I affectionately named him Mr Pivot Table (MPT).

MPT could work magic with those tables and he could author the most in-depth macros known to mankind. Furthermore, he wrote some amazingly complex control charting applications in Excel that brought Excel down to its knees.

MPT is an Excel virtuoso and he was wonderful to work with because he was a walking-talking repository of process improvement wisdom. With me being a newbie process improvement consultant, I was lucky to have him as a mentor.

From another perspective, it was somewhat unfortunate for me that I got teamed up with/against him because time is at a premium when you are working on those jobs. He had so much experience and I had none, which made it difficult for me in the early days. Effectively each job was a competition in which I had to perform against a master.

To process all the data we had, to transform it into the correct formats needed to be entered into the improvement software, and to complete the calculations was a lot of work. Every time we did this, we had to match results exactly. I really mean exactly. The mandate was this: perfect execution in a minimum of time.

During the first five or six months of doing this work, I was using Excel because I had not yet discovered Tableau. By that time, I was also an Excel master, having started using it on the day it became available in the late 1980’s. I had used Excel for two decades for scientific computing purposes, so it was interesting to see these two people doing battle on the Excel checkerboard battlefield using different approaches and techniques.

Although my buddy and I used different methods in Excel to prepare the data and compute the results, we always matched. We were able to reconcile the results to the nth decimal digit. If we were not able to reconcile the results, we determined that one of us had used a different assumption about the data. Upon fixing the assumptions, we were able to match.

Many competitions occurred over the months, during many high-visibility and intensive process improvement experiments.  Suddenly in Feb 2008, the rules of the game changed. I got Tableau.

Tableau Changed The Rules of Engagement

Now I know it will sound like I am romanticizing or embellishing this story, but I’m telling you the truth in everything that I’m saying. Once I learned how to use Tableau, the game/battles were over. For the next four years or so, I was able to do the same work completely in Tableau. My partner continued to use Excel. Whereas I flew high above the battlefield with perfect visibility, he stayed firmly entrenched in the Microsoft Excel methodology.

The competitions were no longer competitions. In fact, the disparity in the speed of executing the work grew so large, that it reached the point of ridiculousness. I was able to complete the work in typically about 1/10th of the time (or less) that it took me to do previously in Excel. For big data jobs, the disparity was even much larger.

I got so good at doing this work, that when the projects began, I would wait a day or two before beginning just so that I didn’t make it look like I was bragging, like the kid who finished the test first in class and handed it in with most of the time left in the class. Also, I didn’t want to make MPT feel bad that it was taking him so long to do the work.

Additional Benefits Via Tableau

Using Tableau for this was so transformative, that not only was I able to do the work in a fraction of the time, there were other benefits, too. If you want to know what some of those were, read these process-improvement related articles from when I was a new blogger 4 years ago. Most people don’t even know these articles exist because I wrote them before anyone knew what I was doing on my Tableau blog:

  1. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/05/31/x-bar-and-r-charts-with-tableau/
  2. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/using-daily-data-in-tableau-to-calculate-annual-sales-comps-and-generate-control-charts-of-this-data/
  3. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/tableau-correlations-and-scatter-plots/
  4. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/using-tableau-as-a-graphical-post-processor-for-a-custom-program/
  5. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/using-tableau-to-create-dashboards-for-tracking-salesman-performance/
  6. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/how-to-use-a-trick-in-tableau-for-adjusting-a-scatter-plot-trend-line/
  7. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/how-to-use-tableau-to-clean-your-data-using-an-iterative-z-score-approach/
  8. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/how-to-better-understand-and-use-linear-trend-models-in-tableau/
  9. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/how-to-add-add-latlong-to-your-data-for-more-precise-tableau-mapping/
  10. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/additional-insight-and-clarification-of-tableau-exponential-trend-models/
  11. https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/a-help-guide-for-better-understanding-all-of-tableau-trend-models/

I could go on with this 6-month list (there are now >250 such articles, so please click here to explore this knowledge base), but please understand that the extra time I had to do this process improvement work lead to a burst of creativity for me that started in 2008 and is still continuing. You can see that those few articles were written in 6 months but were born in the competitive and fiery caldron of process improvement work, where millions of dollars were at stake.

The Lesson For You, Mr Pivot Table Lover

What I want you to understand is that Tableau allowed me to leave my buddy in the dust. He was so far behind me, literally eating my dust, that eventually I had to admit to him what was going on.

While he was tapping the keyboard, I was creating and innovating. While he was pivot tabling, I was dancing and singing in Tableau along with leaping from my chair, fist-bumping the air and writing these articles. To understand what I mean, read the 3-part series I wrote about how I discovered the Tableau Data Zone. MPT had no idea what was going on in another part of the building until I told him.

Eventually, MPT couldn’t resist the temptation anymore, especially as the size of the data sets continued to grow.  With bigger data sets, he got punished. With bigger data sets, I flew down the road faster. He had seen me drag racing down the road a few too many times, while he had to stand there and smell the burning rubber. He knew that I had a button to push, like a nitrous button on a muscle car, that I could hit at any time. That button was called Tableau.

I gave him (and others) that button through a series of training courses. It was like giving him the Staples Easy button. He began adopting Tableau. He was astounded at his own personal transformation.

For me, I moved onto other pastures, have taught a few hundred other people the same lessons, and I continue to burn Tableau rubber. So if you think that pivot tables are still powerful, I invite you to come over to my house and allow me to let you in on a little secret learned from the days I spent in the Excel battlefield. If you can’t travel to the beautiful Smoky mountains to see me, just read this blog, by going back to the beginning. The story is there, written word by word for you to learn.

Finally, you can make the change, too. All you have to do is subtract one word and add a little Gold (elemental symbol Au).

Pivot Table Lover  Becomes Pivot Tableau Lover

End of the Story


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