Eliminate Bias and SALY
August 26, 2021
I remember a training that I received not long after I began working, just a year or two after starting at my first company. I was still in my 20s, and hadn’t yet shaken my student habits, so it mostly seemed like an opportunity to drink with my colleagues in the evenings. If it were a three-day program, by the third day I had not just a morning-after hangover but a morning-after the morning-after hangover. I’m embarrassed to say that I may not have absorbed as much of the content as I should have.
However, there was one phrase from that training program that has stuck in my head: “Don’t do SALY”. (SALY stands for “same as last year”.) That is, don’t do the same work as you did a year ago. “That makes sense,” I thought to myself, but a few others in the class noted that, “Doing it the same way as the previous year would be quite a bit faster.” For an accountant, what this would look like in the case of a tax filing, for example, would be to communicate with the client and get this year’s information, then create this year’s tax return while referring to last year’s worksheets. After receiving the updated numbers, it’s quite possible in a superficial way to use the previous year’s worksheets without thinking about it much. When you’re dealing with repetitive work for over 100 companies every year, it’s human nature to take the easy way out and resort to SALY.
It wasn’t until some years after that training that I started to really understand the importance of not doing SALY. When you resort to SALY in the midst of busy days and weeks, you stop using your own brain power to think about things. When you do that, you give up ownership of your work, and you lose sight of its significance.
I believe that the value of iterative work lies in “creating a standard within oneself”. As you repeat similar tasks, you achieve a standard within yourself as to how that work should look and feel. Then, when you encounter something that differs from that standard, you realize immediately that it’s not quite right. The ability to realize that represents the achievement of a certain level, but that alone is still not enough.
The Olympic table tennis gold medalist Jun Mizutani says that, “Ordinary players simply make efforts when they practice, but players who become great reflects on every single shot when they practice. The results for the same amount of practice time are completely different.”
As he practices what looks to be simply hitting the ball, he maintains a single-minded focus on how to return that ball harder, faster and more accurately. Rather than practicing because the coach said to, Mizutani keeps thinking about why each success succeeded and why each failure failed, continuing to grow and advance by tearing down the standard that he had previously achieved. That continuous repetition is what makes great athletes.
In the accounting world, we would call this “professional skepticism”. One must always question whether what one is seeing is correct, maintaining a sense of doubt. The professional continually considers, free from bias, whether the accounting operations are really the same as in the previous year, whether there have been changes in the composition of personnel and what may have changed in the tax code. When the professional is thinking hard about what is correct, what is efficient and whether better output could be achieved, what might appear to be SALY instead becomes renewed work of which we can take ownership.
The important thing is to escape SALY and establish your own work. Starting with that one phrase, “Don’t do SALY”, in a training program over 20 years ago when I was still young, “Eliminate Bias and SALY” has taken root as a key value within our company.