Recently, my wife and I inherited a lot of “stuff” from our parents: boxes of pictures, family documents and some heirlooms. One of the best items is an 1865 newspaper announcing the death of Abraham Lincoln. The paper is extremely fragile: I feel like I am holding history when I pick it up.
But there are also a lot of things of doubtful value, and some things we have no idea as to why our parents kept them. Sorting through all this stuff is an arduous project. You may have experienced a similar situation.
I recently came across an old newspaper I had kept from the September 29, 1999, edition of The Wall Street Journal. I was working at General Motors when it was published. On the cover page it read: “Lasting Impact: How an Internal Memo Written 26 Years Ago is Costing GM Dearly.” In 1973 a “low-level engineer” wrote a memo estimating the cost to GM of the deaths due to post-collision fuel-tank fires from vehicle accidents. Setting the monetary damages at $200,000 per such death, he went on to calculate the added cost per car to be $2.40. General Motors had tried to keep the memo from being presented as evidence in post-collision fuel-tank lawsuits, but was unsuccessful; its admission in court just added more fuel to many plaintiffs’ cases. (Pun intended.)
Timely disposal is also important, as Arthur Andersen found out. In 2002 the firm was convicted of witness tampering in connection to its disposal of Enron-related documents. It wasn’t so much that they destroyed the documents in question, but that the “reminder notice” and subsequent shredding occurred as executives began to worry that an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission might be imminent. The conviction was eventually overturned by the United States Supreme Court, but the situation might have been avoided had a different, more ongoing document retention and disposal practice been in place. (You can find more about the Arthur Andersen case at http://www.economist.com/node/4033756.)
You may have your own favorite example of a memo that came back to haunt the writer.
How many times had I left a company leaving behind such a mixture of stuff for someone else to clean up? I offer my apologies to whomever had to sort through it, and my sympathies to anyone who has been left with stuff to sort through from someone else.
And what about the stuff you left behind when changing jobs within the same company? Was it only useful documentation? Did it include drafts and multiple versions besides the final report? Did someone have to go through a lot of useless items to find the truly valuable documentation and analyses? How did they know which version of the model was the one used in the report for the filing? Electronic files can be deleted in a single step, but going through them is often tedious as they must be opened before determining their content, unless you have a naming convention or other form of version control.
Even if a memo is worthy of being retained, all the drafts before the final memo can be discovered in the event of a lawsuit. Attorneys can grill you for hours as to why the wording in version 6 was different than the wording in version 7, which was different from the final. Trust me on this point. I once spent a full day in a room of attorneys trying to explain exactly the difference between a succession of wording differences in the drafts that lead up to the final version. It is not a fond memory. With multiple drafts, attorneys pick the wording they like best, charging that the other versions were “sanitized,” that your analysis was inconclusive, you were indecisive, or worse. Keeping only the final version prevents that from happening.
When writing a report or memo, I try to think about what is included that has no value or is of questionable value. Less wording means less to distract the reader, makes the salient points more visible, and limits the damages caused by superfluous wording. (See the “In My Opinion” column titled “And Your Point Is?” in the November-December 2017 Actuarial Review.)
Timely disposal is also important, as Arthur Andersen found out. In 2002 the firm was convicted of witness tampering in connection to its disposal of Enron-related documents.
Less stuff to go through also means that you find what you want quicker, whether it is in a memo, paper files or electronic files.
For many years, I have kept a “Friday drawer.” It is a drawer of things I am not sure if I should toss. Rather than place them in another file, they go into this file. About every month or two (or three or four), on a Friday when things are winding down, I go through this drawer and sort it. Most of it goes into the trash, but some items are saved. It saves me a lot of time trying to decide whether to keep something and relieves me of the anxiety that I may throw away something valuable.
All the drafts before the final memo can be discovered in the event of a lawsuit. Attorneys can grill you for hours as to why the wording in version 6 was different than the wording in version 7, which was different from the final.
For electronic files, I usually create a folder within the project folder called “old stuff.” Prior editions of the report, old versions of the worksheets or models, go into that file. I keep the “old stuff” because occasionally someone comes back with “I like the way you worded it two versions ago” or “I think the way you reflected the trend was better in the earlier version of the worksheet.” When the project is done, I can erase the “old stuff” in a single swipe, keeping only the most recent data, spreadsheets and reports.
The last task of any project should be to clean up. Eliminate the drafts, both paper and electronic.
With all the attention-catching items that surround us, we can eliminate a lot of the clutter, or “stuff,” that distracts us from what we really want and need to find.
Grover Edie, FCAS, is the AR editor in chief. He works as a consulting actuary for Huggins Actuarial Services, Inc.