Breakout and Propagate – Oldies but Goodies

We’ve been on-site with various customers in the last few months, it’s always good to see how the product is being used, and we value customer feedback, which often feeds into our development cycle.

With two long-term customers we found that they weren’t aware of two very useful pieces of functionality which have been in the product for many years. In case there are others in the same boat…..

1) Breakout

Breakout is available on the right-click menu of any XLCubed report, grid or formula. It’s a way to understand how the number is split into elements of another hierarchy. On a right-click, you can switch to the breakdown of the number by any other hierarchy in the cube. It’s particularly useful where a reported number seems too high or too low, and needs further investigation. In the example below, we’d like to understand how the June 2004 number for the US is made up in terms of Products. We’ve chosen breakout on the right-click menu, specified the Product Model Categories hierarchy and the level to run the breakout at. The breakout result is shown on the bottom right, and we can quickly see that in June Touring bikes were contributing almost 33% of the US revenues. In this example we’ve also included a sparkline to give a feel for trend over the last 2 years (previous 23 months, plus the current month).

The breakout result is still linked to the report selection criteria, so can be used as a dynamic part of the report ongoing.

 

2) Propagate across Sheets

Propagate across sheets is a way to quickly replicate a report onto additional sheets, where just one variable is changed. Typical-use cases for this are entity-based reporting, where for example there is a standard P&L template across the business, and the user wants to quickly generate a P&L for each legal entity. You can build the report as normal, and then when done, right-click on the selected member for the hierarchy you want to propagate, and choose the elements which you want to create additional sheets for. On the new sheets, the formatting and print layout are identical, with the only change being the selected member on the propagated hierarchy.

This example shows the income statement about to be propagated for the four selected departments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solve order shenanigans

Today I’m going to blog about a problem we recently solved in a client’s cube, an error in the Mdx script that’s very easy to make if you aren’t careful.

We’ll run a simple example in AdventureWorks (what else?) to demonstrate the issue.

The client had already added a calculation to their cube to show year-on-year growth. The formula is:

Create Member CurrentCube.[Measures].[Delta to PrevYear] as
(
    ([Measures].[Internet Sales Amount])
    -
    ([Measures].[Internet Sales Amount],
        ParallelPeriod(
            [Date].[Calendar].[Calendar Year],
            1,
            [Date].[Calendar].CurrentMember
        )
    )
)
/
    ([Measures].[Internet Sales Amount],
        ParallelPeriod(
            [Date].[Calendar].[Calendar Year],
            1,
            [Date].[Calendar].CurrentMember
        )
    )
, Format_String = "0.00%";

(some error checking removed for clarity)

This screenshot shows a couple of simple XLCubed Grids showing the real value, and below the percentage change. I have added in an Excel calculation to show the results are as expected.

Later during the cube development, the client added a calculated member in their Product dimension, one that gives a total excluding one of the product categories.

To replicate this I’ll add a calculation for “All Ex Bikes”:

Create Member 
CurrentCube.[Product].[Product Model Categories].[All Products].[All Ex Bikes]
as
(
    ([Product].[Product Model Categories].[All Products])
    -
    ([Product].[Product Model Categories].[Category].&[1])
);

And if we run the report again we get the following.

Notice the cell I’ve highlighted. The “All Ex Bikes” calculation works fine on the normal measure, but it gives totally the wrong number for the percentage calculation. What’s going on?

The problem is that in the cell highlighted Analysis Services has two calculations to think about when working out the result.

  • Compare this year to last year
  • Get the “Grand Total”, and subtract “Bikes”

As the number returned is 1.85% we can see that Analysis Services has chosen the second option, “Grand Total” – “Bikes”.

What we really want is for the calculation to be done by getting the subtotal, and then doing the percentage change based on that.

Fortunately the fix was a simple one. Analysis Services will run the calculations in the order they are found in the Mdx Script, so to fix the issue we simply moved the new “All Ex Bikes” definition up above the percentage calculation.

Now the number returned matches our expectations.

Pass/Solve Order can be a complex topic, so you may need to be careful.

In this case the number is totally wrong, so it was easy to spot, but some bugs will be much more subtle, so watch out!

Warning: Excel can get Volatile

Excel is a great tool for dashboard/report delivery and design (it’s why we created our addin in the first place), but there is a hidden performance trap:

Offset, Now, Today, Cell, Indirect, Info and Rand

If you’ve ever used any of these formulae, you may have noticed that whenever you change a cell, or collapse/expand a data grouping, Excel recalculates. That is because these are VOLATILE formulae, as soon as you use one of these, Excel will enter a mode where everything is always recalculating, and for good reason.

Offset & Now are the formulae we see used most often. Let’s look at each of these in turn and talk about some alternate approaches to avoid this issue.

Offset

This is by far the most common of these danger formulae that we see in use. Here’s the formula definition:

=Offset(reference,rows,cols,height,width)
Returns a reference to a range that is a given number of rows and columns 
from a given reference.

We typically see these as part of a named range definition for driving chart source data – it allows the number of rows/columns driving the chart data to change automatically; a not unusual requirement when it comes to building reports (especially when a report contains some user defined filters or slicers). Here’s an example:

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very simple spreadsheet – we can type the number of months to display in the chart. In reality the number of months to display will probably be driven by the data available for the criteria selected. The screenshot already shows the issue we have –  the chart is setup to display a max of 12 months, but we only have 3 months of data available.

 

The most obvious approach is to use the Offset formula to pick the chart area to use automatically, we could create a named range such as:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now we just change the chart data source to be the named range:

 

 

 

 

The chart is now plotting 3 months, but will automatically update to show the required number of months:

BUT we have now used a volatile formula –  although this is a simple workbook, we are now in a position where Excel is going to have to recalculate everything all the time. It’s probably a good time to look at why Excel is going to do that. Let’s have a look at very simple formula to understand how Excel recalculates things.

Consider the formula:

C1    =A1 + B1

We can see that C1 is dependent upon A1 & B1 – so whenever a value in either of these cells changes C1 will need to be recalculated to show the correct answer. Excel knows about this dependency because it maintains a dependency tree; it knows which cells need to be recalculated whenever any other cell changes. This is a very efficient way of working, if a workbook has thousands of formula, but only one values changes, and this only needs 10 of these formula to recalculate, then only 10 will be calculated.

If C1 contained:

C1    =Sum(A1:A20)

We know that C1 depends upon any of the cells A1:A20, and so does Excel. But what if C1 was:

C1    =Sum(Offset(A1,0,0,B1,1))

Which cells is C1 dependent upon? At a glance you could say A1 & B1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

but  B1 contains the number 20, so actually C1 is dependent upon A1:A20 and B1 (I’ve highlighted the additional cells that are dependent):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just as we can’t see at a glance which cells C1 needs – Excel also can’t easily decide that. Therefore, Offset is volatile because, if it wasn’t then there is a danger that Excel would take so long to work out if it needs to be calculated that it might as well always calculate it.

There is an easy solution to this, INDEX. Here’s the formula definition (be careful, there are 2 ways to use Index, we want the REFERENCE one):

=Index(reference,row_num,column_num,area_num)
Returns a value of reference of the cell at the intersection of a 
particular row and column, in a given range
The big difference, compared to Offset, is that Index is going to return a single cell reference, so you need to use it as part of a range selection A1:Index(…). Here’s the same “Offset” Sum redefined as an “Index”:
C1    =SUM(A1:INDEX(A1:A20,B1,0))

The formula is simply saying the range we want starts at A1 and goes down the number of rows set in B1. The crucial difference is that the Index functions knows that A1:A20 is the maximum range we are likely to look at and therefore the dependencies are known just by looking at the formula itself:

We can now update the Named Range to use the Index function instead:

=Sheet1!$C$6:INDEX(Sheet1!$C$6:$C$17,Sheet1!$D$2,0)

 

 

Now/Today

The Now and Today functions return the current date to a cell – this is generally used so that when a report is loaded it will always show the data based on “Today”. Whilst this is not an unreasonable thing to want to do,  in reality what most people want is for the report to run for the most recent data, which could actually mean a number of things:

  • Yesterday (if the data is built in a nightly process)
  • The last working day (if the source transactional system is only used during office hours)
  • Current month etc.

The easiest solution is to let the data determine the date to use – if we use an XLCubed Grid or Query Table to retrieve the data we can simply setup a grid to retrieve the days/months where there is data:

And use the Sort option “Reverse” to display the most recent data first:

With the grid set to “Refresh on Open”  we know that A6 will always have the most recent date available in the cube and can base the rest of the report off that cell.

Incidentally, V6.2 of XLCubed introduces a new option to Slicers to automatically select the most recent date member when the report is loaded:

Ranking, Sorting and Filtering

Once we have returned cube members into a grid report we often need to exclude or change the order of the result set to provide more meaningful information. MDX (Multidimensional Expressions) language includes some very useful operators to provide filtering (FILTER), sorting (ORDER) and ranking (TOPCOUNT/BOTTOMCOUNT) of dimension members. These can be quite overwhelming even for power users of XLCubed.  So, in V6, we have introduced a new feature “Advanced Member Selections” to provide easy access to this powerful part of Microsoft Analysis Services.

Using this new functionality we can nest and combine these operations to answer complex business questions (for simpler operations you can right-click on a member in the grid and use the “Apply” menu to perform simple ranking, filters and sorting).

Filtering

So let’s go through a simple filtering example.  Say, for example, that we want to find the products at Product Key level that sold more than 25 units in 2003, Quarter 1 and show the sales figures for those subcategories during 2003 and its quarters.

  1. Start by clicking the Grid ribbon item (or the XLCubed > Design Grid menu item in Excel 2003 and below), and selecting the Internet Sales cube file
  2. Drag Calendar Period to Columns and Product to Rows. You can also drag any other hierarchies to Headers. In the example image below, Measures and Customer have been added there.

  1. Click on the Product hierarchy so that its details appear in the bottom-right panel.
  2. Drag the Product key level over to the right of the dialog. You can switch between the members view and levels view by clicking on the Show Levels icon ().
  3. Click the Advanced tab to show the advanced selection pane:

  1. Click the Members drop down and choose Filter result:


  1. Click the Calendar Period edit control in the grid to change its selection to the desired member (2003, Quarter 1):

  1. Select the This measure radio button, and select Order Quantity as the desired measure.
  2. Change the Operation to >, and type 25 in the edit field on the right:

  1. Click OK. The new filter is displayed in the advanced selections tab:

  1. Click OK again to run the Report – the Grid shows the members that fit our criteria:

 

So we can see the results, filtering by 2003 Q1, but displaying the values for All Time (or any other period we wish to use). We could have also used the Range selector:    to drive the period selecting from an Excel Range and our grid would automatically refresh whenever the driving value changes.

Ranking

Now let’s add a ranking to find the bottom 8 selling products at the Product Key level that have sold more than 25 units inQ1:

  1. Display the Product Hierarchy Editor dialog
  2. Click the Rank result icon () on the advanced selections tab to display the Edit Ranking dialog
  3. Select the Bottom radio button, and type 8 into the edit field
  4. Select 2003, Quarter 1 for the Calendar Period hierarchy in the grid below:

We now have the filter, following by the ranking:

 

Run the Grid: only the lowest 8 members are returned

 

Sorting

Now let’s sort the report on a different dimension – for example, descending order of the Q1 sales.

  1. Display the Hierarchy Editor for the Product hierarchy by double-clicking on the Product label in the Grid
  2. If it’s not already visible, select the Advanced tab
  3. Click the Sort result toolbar button ()
  4. Change the Calendar Period selection to 2003, Quarter 1:

  1. Click the Sort Descending (9-1) radio button
  2. Click OK. The new sort is displayed in the advanced selections tab
Click OK again to run the Report

 

Joining Results

It’s also possible to join different results together: combining both sets (UNION), excluding members (EXCEPT) and returning common members (INTERSECT).

So we could also add the top 10 products  along side the bottom 8 products to the grid. Begin by adding another member selection using the “Add Member List” tool-bar button:

As before, we select the list of members to rank (in this case the Product Key level) and then select the operation we want to perform, a Top 10:

There are various options to decide how to combine the lists, we’ll stick with Add:

 

 

And we get both results combined:


So the “Advanced Member Selections” feature provides lots of the power of Analysis Services in a simplified way  – to try this feature for yourself you can begin by downloading XLCubed.

“Prev” and “Next” in XLCubed Slicers

We’ve been asked a few times in the last couple of months if we can build a ‘Previous / Next’ selector for date hierarchies, which allows the user to quickly navigate sequentially through months or days. The answer is of course ‘yes’,  otherwise it would be a very short blog..

One of the key strengths of XLCubed is it’s tight integration with Excel, and it means that with some creative thinking the answer is very rarely  ‘no you can’t’. Here we use a combination of our slicers, the xl3membernavigate function, and standard Excel formulae to produce a very effective selector for just this scenario.

A working example of this which connects to the sample bicycle sales local cube which we  ship with the product is available here or you can view the online demo here.

There are a couple of key things to note with this approach:

1) Slicers are typically populated direct from the cube, which makes them very flexible and dynamic. However a less well known aspect is that slicers can be driven from an excel range, and in this case that’s what we’ll be doing.

2) XL3MemberNavigate(). A fairly new formula which allows you to traverse a hierarchy dynamically in a multitude of different ways. Here we just scratch the surface.

To begin with we need to prepare a range of cells in Excel to base the slicer on, in this case the months, and we also need to ensure it’s dynamic and can change with the underlying data structure.  We need to prepare a table of similar structure to the below.

Cell B2 is the selection made by the user in the slicer, which we’ll come back to. The other columns in the table show:

Description:

Logical description of what the row is

Month:

The month available for selection, determined by whatever the user chooses in the slicer, and the Xl3MemberNavigate formula (Insert Formula – Member Navigate) .

Checked Month:

Validation checks on the month to cater for when the first and last available months are selected.

Slicer Display:

what will be displayed in the slicer dialog for user selection.

The first month uses MemberNavigate to get the first available month. This is very straightforward in the MemberNavigate dialog, and will insert a formula in this syntax: XL3MemberNavigate(1,”[Time]”,”[Time].[Month]”,”FirstMember”). Last month is achieved the same way, but using ‘lastmember’.

Previous and Next are again achieved using MemberNavigate, this time the syntax will be:  XL3MemberNavigate(1,”[Time]”,SlicerData!$B$7,”Previous”).

Displayed month is simply what the user has chosen in the slicer.

 Adding the slicer:

Add a slicer from the XLCubed ribbon (or insert slicer menu in 2003). On the selection tab, choose ‘slicer range’ and select C5:D9 on the table shown above. Then set the slicer Type to be buttons. Lastly, on the settings tab, set the slicer to update cell B2 on the SlicerData sheet.

Optionally, you can also name the slicer and choose to show a title bar, as we have in this example.

On inserting the slicer, you’ll need to resize the control itself, and possibly also the size of the buttons if the data member names are long.

You should now have a slicer which enables Prev/Next selections, along with first and last.

Using the slicer in a report

The slicer isn’t currently connecting to anything, or changing filters within a report. To do that, as it’s not directly connected to a hierarchy in the same way as a standard slicer, we need to go via the excel cell which it updates. So any XLCubed grids or formulae need to reference the cell which the slicer outputs its selection to, in this case in this case SlicerData!$B$2.

In our example we’ve just connected one grid, but there can be as many as required. Our example also gives some sales and costing detail for the main product categories. We also use in-grid sparklines to give a feel for the trend, and these can be drilled or sliced and diced in the same way as a standard grid.

The working example can be downloaded here, or a similar version published to XLCubedWeb used online here.

 

 

An Excel User in a Cubed Kingdom

I’ve been using Excel for my entire professional career, most of the time in large corporations where adding a piece of software to the standard IT structure would be some kind of heresy. When I have a business need that can be solve by an out-of-the-box Excel installation that’s the path I follow (I’m also a power user of the company’s formal BI tool, so I know where to draw the line).

Over time, I’ve developed a framework that helps me to solve problems from a very specific point of view: how to minimize file size, how to minimize calculation time, how to deploy, how to update, and so on. This is the logic that you often must follow, and you tend to believe it is the best one. At that point you must start a conversation (a very fashionable word nowadays..) with someone that doesn’t share that logic.

Take OLAP cubes, for example. I never use them. I use the corporate BI tool or I create a 100% pure Excel application. But then Andreas told me about XLCubed and how you could deploy online your always-updated-file. That was a turning point because for me those are two killer features that I’ve been yearning for a long time.

I started to play with the tool, but still using the same logic. And was plain wrong. Sure I could use all my Excel background, but I needed to adjust it to a different logic. Using an OLAP cube you get a new set of functions that simplifies much of your work and you need to reevaluate some Excel functions because some of them will perform better under this new environment. You’ll leverage your Excel background to create a a new logic at a higher level.

I’m an experienced Excel user, probably like you, and this is just Excel on steroids. I’m leaving my comfort zone, one foot at a time, and I’ll document and share with you my learning curve. So come with me to the Cubed Kingdom and we’ll walk through this together.

First stop, next post: what is a cube, anyway?

Smart Dashboard Ranking Tables

Chandoo and Robert over at the PHD blog have a nice a 4 post series of posts about Creating KPI Dashboards in Microsoft Excel.

I really recommend you to read Robert’s articles. Having scrolling in your sorted table is just a really smart addition to your Excel dashboard.

Yesterdays post was about Adding One Click Sort:

Continue reading “Smart Dashboard Ranking Tables”

Hyperlink Legends to Highlight a Series

So I picked up Jon’s idea and tried to combine it with ParamLink. In  The Missing Link I introduced the (free) ParamLink Add-In. It implements a new hyperlink formula ParamLink(). When the hyperlink is followed the formula can set cell values or define names.

Continue reading “Hyperlink Legends to Highlight a Series”

The Missing Link (Part 1)

Every good discipline needs a missing link. Evolutionary biology had a missing link between humans and the ‘lower’ animals. Physics has a missing link between quantum mechanics and general relativity. The Information Visualization community discovered the Missing Link Between Information Visualization and Art.

Now we discovered the missing link in Excel Data Visualization.

As we can see in Wades winning Bank Dashboard we can greatly increase the amount of information that can be included in a dashboard by using sparklines in an overview table

image

Continue reading “The Missing Link (Part 1)”

Effective Management Reports? Interview with Rolf Hichert

Professor Rolf Hichert is the foremost specialist for information design for financial professionals in the German speaking world. His seminars have been attended by thousands of CFO’s, financial controllers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK. Recently my friend Martin from INTALIGN had the pleasure to interview Professor Dr. Rolf Hichert about his view on what makes an effective management report:

Professor Hichert, your extensive research claims management reports are often ineffective and largely misunderstood, mainly because they are simply never read. Yet we all continue to create these complex documents. Why is that?

Hichert: Reading management reports is enormously time-consuming, in a time when our corporate culture is particularly time-poor. Concise messages are buried, or missing altogether, phraseologies can be confusing, and notation is often not uniform. Frequently, those who do understand the reports have had prior knowledge of its contents, so they are simply reinforcing what they already know. Financial controllers in particular are frequently frustrated by what they perceive to be a lack of understanding, and interest in their reports, despite the tremendous amount of work they may have put into creating a very comprehensive document. I liken the experience to a newspaper editor, who writes a long, in-depth story and then complains about lack of interest by his readers.

What is the main objective of a management report?

Hichert: Reports need to convey a comprehensive message, otherwise they function merely as a statistic or a reference book, comparable to a telephone directory. “To report” means that the creator of the report has taken a certain position and has something of value or novel to say. This may be in the form of statements, explanations, conclusions or recommendations. So, according to this definition, many management reports are not actually reports at all, but merely an exercise in pontification.

Who should be recipients of reports?

Hichert: Structured reports are usually directed to the executive level, the managing directors, and board members. We’re all contributing to information overload however, and there is a considerable increase in the tendency to now supply these reports to middle management, and even trickle them down to all the company’s employees. Other business partners such as banks and investors also have access or are supplied with reports on a regular basis.

We hear a lot of managers complain about the volume of management reports – is that a common problem?

Hichert: Criticism about the extent and thickness of management reports probably dates back to the first ever management report itself. I come across many companies in which senior management are buried under monthly reports containing over 100 pages, an unsurmountable monthly feat to read. And then there are organizations where reports contain only 10 pages or less. The reasons for the extent of management reports are varied; if a report is targeted at a large diverse group for example, it inevitably becomes more extensive as it has to cover a wide variety of needs. In addition, volume may vary depending upon the objective of the report – wether it is to provide an overview, or to give full and complete details. I believe that the question of validity centres less around the extent of a report, and more around the structure itself – is it easy to read and does it follow clear, consistent structures?

Do you then recommend using more charts in a management report?

Hichert: We live in a visual world, where a picture is worth 1,000 words. Pictures are much quicker and clearer to describe complex facts, which might otherwise require substantial wording. It is important to note though, that we can over-use charts as well. Many management reports use charts to visualize numbers that could easily be described in two brief sentences or less. If I want to refer to an export portion of 50% for example, I can easily do this in one sentence, I really don’t need to waste space on a pie chart that depicts only two halves. Such ‘business charts’ serve primarily for ‘optical loosening up’ reports that otherwise might only contain tables and texts. Financial analysts typically complain to me that “my boss is a numbers man, he doesn’t like charts, he prefers tables.” If you look at the quality of charts produced, you can understand this notion. Typically these charts have very low ‘information density’ and are weak illustrations, with no clear message, ‘cut off’ axes, and lack a consistent concept of notation and design structures.

How important is the inclusion of strategic aspects into management reports?

Hichert: Naturally, the structure and contents of management reports should be as aligned as possible to the company’s overall targets. The now popular introduction of a Balanced Scorecard into an organization, with the objective of aligning operations with corporate strategies, offers the ideal opportunity to rethink and improve corporate reporting systems.

What are your thoughts on packaging reports  ‘decoratively’?

Hichert: We now have easy access to creative programs which render all of us amateur graphic designers. Too often, though the necessary knowledge about basic information design principles is missing. CD (Corporate Design) guidelines, that are in principle important to unify content typically  don’t address those either. From our research, we know that the simpler the structure, the easier the report is to understand. Our work shows that such graphic elements as colored backgrounds, decorative pictures, pseudo-3-D-display, shades, frames or other design facets which may be inserted without meaning, should be considered as noise. Rather than add to a report, these features ultimately reduce the quality and the message of a report. Decorations that are unnecessary additions can dilute and crowd out the message. The over-use of color is the most common source of error. Color should only be used if it has an assigned meaning. One shouldn’t for example, expect that the reader will understand the use of red and green as traffic light colors, indicating stop and go on projects, if these colors are also used in other areas of the report for purely decorative purposes.

What is your recommendation in regards to how to deal with the display of variances between actuals and targets or plans?

Hichert: Typically, the major portion of a management report should demonstrate substantial deviations between targets and current actual values. This includes different forms of deviations, such as, for example, between previous years or even more importantly, corporate numbers versus industry benchmarks. If deviations are important, then they should also be concisely represented and emphasized through colors, arrows or frames. The more important the deviation, the more the emphasis must be marked. Professional report guidelines should ensure that equally relevant deviations are equally marked and represented. And it should apply not only to charts, but to tables and texts as well. This principle should always be applied to any reports in an organization, in a consistent and uniform manner.

So, the format of reports should be standardized?

Hichert: We strongly recommend employing a consistent uniform design concept which can be easily understood and interpreted without confusion. The key sign of a quality report is its ability to convey a message and explain facts in a clear and simple manner. Its objective is not to be an object of beauty. Today, we rarely see organizations that have mapped out clear guidelines and rules for scaling, usage of color, when to use what chart types, tables or texts. But consider the road map which universally utilizes a single color scheme; a river is always blue, the scale is always on each side, and north is always at the top. Whether in Australia, or Africa, the rules of the map remain the same. With management reports, it‘s usually left to the creator whether turnover figures are shown in blue columns or green lines – rendering it difficult guesswork for the executive who is forced to interpret and understand it. To be fair, cartographers needed many hundred years to develop visualization of roads, cities and to unite standards – so the financial controllers still have some time…