When Spreadsheets Go Wrong: 5 of The Biggest Spreadsheet Fails in History

Spreadsheets are ubiquitous in modern day life. Used for everything from creating company budgets and managing personal finances, to calculating tax returns and producing graphs and charts, it’s no surprise that around half a billion people worldwide use Excel alone. But although spreadsheets are undoubtedly useful, like with any form of electronic document that stores data, they come with certain risks.

online spreadsheet

Because of problems like weak security measures and version confusion, it’s all too easy for things to turn sour. As noted by low-code application development software company EASA: “Issues like version confusion, cell type mismatches (for example numbers being recorded as text) and intellectual property vulnerability may occur, bogging down business processes, creating risks, and even derailing projects entirely.” Difficulty in direct integration with other programs and data sources often results in inefficient manual copying and pasting, slowing down processes and inviting errors.

However, one of the main issues faced by spreadsheet users is simply human error. Unfortunately, history is littered with instances of user mistakes costing businesses and people dearly. To help drive home the importance of taking care of your spreadsheets, we’ve decided to look at some of the biggest fails of all time.

1. Fidelity’s $2.6 billion error

Investment company Fidelity’s high-profile Magellan fund had to scrap its $4.32/share year-end dividend distribution after a catastrophic spreadsheet error. The mistake? Just one single missing minus sign. When transcribing the net capital loss of $1.3 billion from the fund’s financial record to a spreadsheet, the accountant forgot to use a -, turning the loss into a gain and making the distribution fund off by a monumental $2.6 billion. Unsurprisingly, the fund was cancelled that year, much to the chagrin of those involved.

2. 2012 Olympics organizers sell 10,000 non-existent tickets

In the run up to the 2012 Olympics, 10,000 non-existent tickets were sold for a synchronized swimming heats event after a staffer erroneously put 20,000 into a cell instead of 10,000. But with no capacity to accommodate these extra spectators, the Olympic Committee had to upgrade their tickets to ones at major events. Which, although was great news for those lucky sports fans, caused huge embarrassment and a significant financial loss for the organizers.

Excel spreadsheet

3. TransAlta lose $24 million after cut and paste error

A worker for Canadian power company TransAlta cost the business an eye-watering $24 million after a simple cut and paste mistake. The error occurred when they misaligned the rows of data in the spreadsheet, meaning high bids intended for in-demand electricity transmission path contracts were instead made for lower demand ones. Consequently, TransAlta ended up overpaying for these contracts, as well as purchasing more capacity than they wanted to in certain instances. All in all, the error wiped out a sickening 10% of the company’s profits that year.

4. Kodak add too many zeros to a severance accrual record

Another similarly sorry story comes from photography behemoth Kodak. Back in 2005, a simple typo resulted in an $11 million overstatement on a single employee’s accrued severance record — truly the stuff of nightmares. The typo? Too many zeros. The mistake came at a time when the company was losing more than $100 million every quarter, though it was quickly rectified, meaning Kodak could re-release its financial results with the correct numbers soon after.

5. MI5 makes more than 1,000 bugging errors in a year

The UK’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency was responsible for an astonishing 62% of wrong applications for communications data in 2010 due to a spreadsheet formatting error. MI5 accidentally bugged 134 phones after they applied for data on numbers ending in “000” rather than the actual last three digits. Fortunately for those wrongly bugged, the resulting material was destroyed, with the formatting mistake fixed and phone numbers checked manually from then on.


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