Perfection

One of the more interesting books that McLeod Governance has read of recent times is the tome by Bill Bryson “At Home”.

Today in Honestly Lay Bare we want to delve into the pages of that fine book and consider an invention that has barely changed since it was first invented in 1897.

It got us thinking as to what controls within an organisation are so good that they are barely changed (and don’t need to) from the day that were designed.

But more on that later.

What is it that has been around for 116 years and is nearly the same in design as the patent design as first registered.

It is the mousetrap.

As Bryon notes:

In 1897 a young ironmonger in Leeds named James Atkinson took a small piece of wood, some stiff wire and not much else, and created one of the greatest contraptions of history – the mousetrap.

It is one of several useful items – the paper clip, zip and safety pin are among many others – that were invented in the late nineteenth century and were so nearly perfect that they have scarcely been improved upon in all the decades since.

Atkinson sold his patent for 1,000 pounds – a very considerable sum for the time – and went on to invent other things, but nothing secured him more money or immortality.

After making a number of versions he eventually came up with the Little Nipper as it has become known, a wooden base upon which sits a simple spring mechanism which is triggered by the movement of the mouse as it attempts to get at the bait. Atkinson wanted to avoid the risk of the trap going off prematurely, but also wanted a powerful snapping action. This he achieved with a spring whose speed has never been bettered.

Atkinson made the traps himself but later sold the rights to a Welsh company, Procter Brothers. They have continued making the traps to this day. Little Nipper was registered as a trade mark in May 1909 and is still held by Procter Brothers.

Means of trapping pests continue to interest designers and inventors and many patents are still filed on the subject (including means of drowning and electrocuting the mice and also trapping them humanely) but no-one else has managed to come up with a more successful trap and the Little Nipper still holds 60% of the mousetrap market.

Atkinson died in 1942.

**

As McLeod Governance was reading this, two things came to mind.

Firstly we erred in our career choice.  There is clearly a lot more fame and fortune to be found in mousetrap design than there will ever be in audit and governance consulting.

Secondly, it struck us that it is the exception and not the rule for something to be designed so well first time that it does not need modifications.

To this effect, we let our curious mind explore whether there are internal controls that are so well designed first time that there is no need for future revision (and some would say, ongoing assurance).

And the interesting thing is that – over the course of our career to date – we could not find or recall an instance where a control had stood the test of time.

A control that was introduced into the organisation decades ago and was still effective and efficient.

Others may be able to find evidence thereof. But not us.

But is that necessarily a bad thing.

The hungry mouse may never learn from the swift and brutal execution of their kin so there has never been the need to improve the mousetrap.

Organisations change so the control environment should change with it.

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