Work The System
By Sam Carpenter, published in 2008
There are a few books that come across your desk that change your perspective and impact you more than others. Work The System, by Sam Carpenter, is one of those books for me. It was recommended to me four years ago from a business coach at just the right time. The principles Carpenter shares helped me understand systems and processes as I was working on a project to shift how our company operated. Work The System helped me see processes more clearly and focus on how to tweak the parts of each system in order to improve the overall results.
Carpenter defines systems thinking as the vision to see the world as “an orderly collection of processes” rather than a chaotic, random series of events. This definition may not do much for you as a stand-alone statement. It is easy to think about emotional reactions, varied customer expectations, and custom requests as the antithesis to orderly processes. The book helps define systems thinking and mindset through Carpenter’s own story of buying and running a business. He didn’t always prescribe to systems thinking, and it took him over a decade to change the way he ran his company and begin to see some benefits. Carpenter’s story is similar to many other owners, consisting of 80- to 100-hour workweeks, struggling family life, and still losing money. His business was bad enough that he tripled his prices and doubled his revenue, yet he still continued to struggle.
Carpenter has an enlightening moment and begins to change the way he manages and operates his business. The book tells his story in a way that anyone in business can relate and share in the feelings as he goes through this journey. The impact of the story helps connect and understand the systems mindset. Once you are connected to the story and understand the pain then it is rewarding to walk through the improvement ideas and processes that Carpenter shares for the rest of the book. I did not quite have the enlightenment moment that he did, but the book opened my eyes to a way of working and managing that continues to benefit me in business.
The Work The System method begins with creating “strategic objectives and general operating principles,” then defining systems, subsystems, and processes to create a mechanical way of operating and improving business. I easily connected strategic objectives to what I commonly know as a business’ mission. Carpenter defines it a bit more granular and says it “defines goals, describes methodology, lists strengths, and prescribed action.” Likewise, his operating principles are distinct in definition and purpose. Principles, he says, are the “guidelines for making decisions” in your business. As a corporate manager in a Fortune 500 enterprise, I know these things are mandatory to running a successful large business. I’ve also seen where just a small amount of work into objectives and principles can change a hectic small business into a thriving and enjoyable venture.
The book begins to get very granular in defining how to document systems and processes. It would be easy to discount the specifics and move on without reading the last section. I found the specifics to help me understand the benefits and processes that it takes to get to a desirable result. Carpenter shares plenty of details, including example documents from his company. By looking at the examples it is clear that it takes work and time to get to a place of quality systems and processes in a business. It worked for this author. He now spends just two hours per week in his successful business and uses the rest of his time for leisure and consulting for business leaders who want to find peace in their business.
I highlighted and annotated several passages in this book but my favorite line and the most impactful might be this:
“. . . remember that most people don’t fail by making overt mistakes. They fail because they don’t take action.” That statement is probably easy for entrepreneurs to take to heart, but even entrepreneurs have hesitations. This book makes it clear that it is okay to put some systems in place even if you enjoy the hectic and adventurous life of unknown challenges. There will always be breakdowns and new circumstances that reveal improvement opportunities in your system. Creativity and exploration still exist in a world of systems and processes.
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About Phil Klutts
Phil is an Edmond native and has managed to keep his wife here instead of traveling the world, which they both enjoy. They have two boys who love the outdoors, adventures, and learning new things. Phil is a problem-solver at heart and enjoys connecting people to the resources they need.
Phil founded the CK Group LLC after working for large and small businesses in the Energy, Construction, and Fitness industries. He focuses on helping small businesses and entrepreneurs improve their systems and processes. CK Group LLC's mission is to eliminate chaos and create clarity for small business by connecting vision, strategy, and implementation.