Book Review | Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less

Sam Carpenter, the author, narrates how as the owner of a Telephone Answering Service (TAS) company, Centratel, he experienced a “spiritual awakening” which inspired him in turning around his company which was at the brink of collapse.

At the time of this awakening Sam was fifty years of age, single father to two children and had been running his business for fifteen years.

Sam was working in excess of 80 hours a week to run and manage a business that endured days on end of cash flow crunches, high staff turnover and absenteeism, innumerable customer complaints and persistent challenges trying to make payroll every two weeks. All these and more spelt doom for the business.

With the business and his life about to hit rock bottom, Sam sort a final last-grasp effort. It was while he lay awake in the dead of the night that he asked himself two simple pragmatic questions:

What have I been doing wrong all these years?

And, since the end is coming, what is there to lose if I abandon past assumptions and look at my world from a completely different angle?

It was then a new realization, new perspective emerged what he calls the Systems Mindset.

As he aptly put it “I understood that my previous vision of the world had been wrong. The planet earth is not a huge, amorphous, seething mass of people, objects, and events swirling in disarray. It’s a place of order and logic, a place of predictability. The world is a collection of logical systems!”

To bring it closer home he realized that this new world view applied to his own business “….it struck me that Centratel was a simple self-contained mechanical device! It was—and is—nothing more than the sum of an assemblage of sequential mechanisms: answering the phones, sales presentations, payroll preparation, scheduling, handling complaints, etc., with each protocol executed in an orderly, lin­ear fashion whereby one step follows another step until the sequence for that particular process is complete. I knew instinctively that the rest of my life operated in the same way: as a collection of separate and independent processes, each functioning in a predictable, reliable 1-2-3-4 sequence according to its own construction.”

This is true of every business and virtually everything that makes up our world and life– it’s all basically a collection of processes that work either in harmony with one another or independently to fulfill various functions.

Then why was his business spiraling out of control and in the brink of collapse? Sam came to the cold hard truth that his leadership in the business had been reactionary and therefore horribly inefficient. He had taken the wrong stance because the mechanics (business process and sub systems) had been invisible (not documented) to him! All he did, as he said, was to kill fires or firefighting, unaware that those fires were the products of dysfunctional subsystems. The primary system that was his business was out of control because it was composed of uncontrolled subsystems!

As a business owner this is something that I can relate to having operated a business for while with little to no documented systems to speak of it. Everything was in either my head or my partner’s. And I can bet this is an issue that affects many small businesses.

In summary Sam’s “Gun-to-the head Enlightenment” led to him to come up with three sets of documents (Strategic Objectives, General Operating Principles and Working Procedures) that every business needs to ensure its operations are systematize. These are:


1.   Define the overall direction, intention, targets, identity and strategy of the company by writing out a Strategic Objective. This is usually a one-page document and remains relatively static over the years. This is the first (one of the foundational documents) and most important of the three documents. It’s more like a Mission Statement of your company. For an example of a Strategic Objective see Appendix A for Centratel’s Strategic Objective.

2.   The second critical and foundational document is the General Operating Principles. This document basically outlines guidelines for making decisions (your beliefs and/or values). For an example of General Operating Principles see Appendix B for Centratel’s Thirty (30) Principles.

3.   The final document (or set of documents) is called Working Procedures. To develop your company’s Working Procedures you first need to break down your workings or operations into subsystems e.g. (using Centratel example) you have processing calls, staff management, client ser­vices, equipment, quality assurance, the protocol for handling cli­ent and customer requests, bookkeeping, purchasing, customer services, etc. Then, each of those subsystems would be broken down into even smaller contributing sub-subsystems, including customer complaint resolution protocol, employee recruitment, equipment maintenance schedules, and so on. Once you identify a single process (enclosed system package unit) your then outline each on paper in a simple linear (step-by-step), chronological format. There are other nonlinear Working Procedures that are in either a narrative, bullet-point or checklist format. Central has approximately four hundred Working Procedures (or what in other quarters is referred to as Standard Operating Procedures). For sample Working Procedures see some of Centratel’s in Appendix C)

With the three sets of documents in place and a continuous process of maintenance and replacement you as the business owner will be able to work ON your business not IN your business.

Working IN your business mean that you are spending time doing the mundane things you have to do for running the business each day. Working ON business means you’re investing time to make your business better (scaling, establishing strategic partners, attracting and retaining talent and other strategic efforts).

So how do you transition from working in your business to working on your business? You systematize your business operations and train and delegate to your employees. This is, essentially, the central theme of the book. And it clearly shows you how to, using the Centratel example.

The book is divided into 3 parts with appendixes at the end.

If you’re a business owner or looking to start your own business this is a highly recommended read.

You can download the book for FREE from the Work the System website where you’ll also find additional resources to help you in the process of systematizing your business.

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