In the spring of 1954, there was great tragedy in the home of my grandparents, just up the street from where we lived. A wonder of the mechanical world of that time had stopped working. Their brand new, pop-up toaster, would not pop-up.
My grandfather worked in a factory fixing machinery. He was a very practical guy. He liked to tinker. The toaster had moved to the bench in his workshop and I was curious to see how he would fix it.
He told me to take the cover off. I was 6 or so, and of course was not about to touch anything. After all it was nearly new and a marvelous thing.
What he told me next has stayed with me my entire life so far. It gave me permission to expand, to try things previously untried, to experiment, to discover.
He said, “When you take the cover off, if the machinery is well made you will be able to see what they are trying to do with it and you will be able to see what made it fail. That is when you decide what to do next. You cannot know what to do with the cover still on. If it is not well made, you won’t learn much by taking the cover off, but if it is poorly made and already broken, how can you make it worse?”
Since then, I have been able to take the cover off broken things. (There are some that would argue obsessed to do so.) Many are well made, a few not so much. Some are more complicated than I anticipated. A 35mm camera comes to mind. That did not end well.
Some manufacturing techniques have made things close to unrepairable, at least by me. Children’s battery-powered toys fit that category. More generally, with almost everything electronic, if there is power to the board and it still does not work, I am done here.
Financial planning and tax planning and computer programs are a bit like this, too.
When you take the cover off you find that many were not exactly created, they evolved. They may have had a place to go in the beginning, but over the years convenient patches and well intentioned tinkering have rendered them both inefficient and, because of no useful documentation, beyond understanding.
I had a client who used to scour the computer scrap yards for machines that had been disposed of by others. He had a 20-year-old computer system, from a defunct manufacturer, running self-developed software that his business used every hour of every day. As you can imagine, you could not get the pieces at Best-Buy. The cost to rewrite the programs was material and easily postponed as long as he could keep finding old machines to cannibalize. Expansion was a problem but one that was easy to postpone one more day.
You eventually have to pay the price, you might as well enjoy the simplicity and efficiency in the meantime.
Your life will be better if, every once in a while, you remove the cover on your financial plans.
Look at them objectively. What do they purport to do? What resources do they do it with? What is that part for!!!?? What is the timeline? How do they interact?
Try to pay as little attention as you can to what brought the plan to this point.
Learn from it, but don’t use how you got here to rationalize the current reality. As you examine the current reality, be a Martian who knows nothing of history. Pure objectivity.
You aim is to answer a simple question. “If this plan and its implementation did not exist today, would I create this exact structure to achieve my known goals?”
If you can say “Yes!”, then replace the cover.
If you cannot say that, try to conceive of a plan that will be both efficient and exactly representative of your best way to resolve your problems and exploit your opportunities. If your world is complicated enough, maybe a factory-trained technician is required. Seek help if you need it. If nothing else, get someone skilled to look over your ideas and make recommendations.
Be brave. You can learn quite a bit by removing the cover.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. firstname.lastname@example.org