If you’re ever lucky enough to go walking in the Swiss mountains something may strike you about the tidiness of the woodpiles outside the pretty log cabins. They’re all very neat. They’re (probably) the most beautifully-stacked woodpiles in the world.

What’s a tidy woodpile got to do with anything?

Passing one of these woodpiles at first you may find yourself impressed. Passing another and you’re still impressed. Perhaps the Swiss have to take advanced classes at school to equip them with special skills in woodpile stacking. Maybe there’s an exam involved. But walking past more, and noticing how tidy they ALL are, you start wondering whether maybe you’re getting an insight into the collective Swiss psyche. What happens to the poor Swiss chap who would love to have a woodpile that’s a bit of a mess? Is he constantly frustrated by the pressure to have his logs stacked perfectly neatly on top of one another? If he broke free and dumped his logs haphazardly, would he be shunned by his neighbours? Would his neighbours start to worry what kind of a mess his house and domestic arrangements were in? Would they refuse to ever visit him and step inside his cabin? Suddenly, after walking through the mountains and first being impressed by the state of the woodpiles, we’re getting worried that here we have a whole country that is living in a state of woodpile oppression.

We’re not really sure how much one should read into woodpiles. But maybe if we want an explanation as to why Swiss railway engineers are so good at getting their trains running on time, the clue might be in the woodpiles. If the Swiss can sort out their woodpiles they can sort out their trains. You can probably tell a lot about someone and the way they think from the state of their woodpile. Sometimes, from a little, you can tell a lot.

Woodpiles and Excel modelling

Sometimes a little can probably tell you a lot in financial modelling as well. The other day, upon opening up a big project finance model for a power plant, first impressions were good. The model had a decent consistent colour scheme and cell styles. There were a lot of tabs there for all the usual things. But where to start with this mini model audit? The obvious place was one of the early tabs that contained a summary of key outputs. Again, at first glance you could see all the normal kinds of outputs you might expect (click the picture below to download the sample outputs):

Excel formatting

So far so good. But, upon taking a second glance: “Hang on a minute, what’s this?”. Just taking one small section of the outputs (above), some of the line items are bold. Is this deliberate? Should we read that some of the numbers are more important than the others? But then look at the numbers themselves. Some are aligned to hard to the right. Some are aligned a little way out from that. It starts to look as if the formats are all a mess.

Sorting out the formats

If you’ve been modelling a while you will know it only takes a few moments to straighten out the formats. All you need to do is select the table and press “Ctrl 1” for custom formats. A custom format like this #,##0 ;(#,##0) will get you started (notice the space before the semi-colon).

Excel custom formats

Then selecting rows 3 through 6 press “Alt” then “H” then “0” (one after the other, not all at the same time) to increase the decimal. And repeat once more. Remove the bolding from A3:A6 (“Ctrl B”) because quite obviously that’s meaningless – the formats here have all been a mess up until now.

Excel model with formatting sorted

How long did all that take? A few seconds. If you click on the image above you can download the example, including a record of the custom format used (press “Ctrl 1” to view the custom format used).

Sometimes a small thing can be a big thing. If the person working this model didn’t know how to sort the formats out, or couldn’t be bothered, alarm bells should start ringing. Although at first glance this model looked like it might be fit for purpose, suddenly we’re thinking we have to do a lot more digging. Unsurprisingly the model that had these formats did turn out to contain real flaws. The first clue that the model might contain problems was the sloppy formatting right at the top.

Be a tidy modeller

We’re not at all worried about the tidiness of your woodpile. If you like, use it as your opportunity to go wild. Throw your wood in a big heap on the ground. We’re not bothered at all. But we’re sure you’ll agree that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the detail of your modelling. Sometimes a little can tell someone a lot about how you approach your modelling.

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You’re reading stories from Financial Training Associates Ltd, the company that’s more bothered about your Excel modelling than your woodpiles.

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