"The word ‘system’ is a pointed and unique unit of language; it’s so precise that it doesn’t have a lot of synonyms."
Sam Carpenter knows a thing or two about systems and systems thinking. In his new edition of Work the System, he outlines how his personal story led to the development and refinement of the Work the System methodology.
Regularly engaging in eighty to one-hundred hour work weeks (fueled by almost every substance known), Sam was on the fast track to a mental and physical health breakdown. As a single parent and small business owner, he was responsible to many, and saw himself as useless to all. He was failing his family, employees, and customers.
The Work the System methodology as put forth in his book was years in the making—a culmination of years of experience that came to him in a dire moment in the middle of a business crisis. Carpenter is not the least bit shy about sharing the events that led to his epiphany. In fact, some of the episodes he describes go deep into his business mindset before and after his development of his system.
So, with a guiding hand and some thoughtful step-by-step techniques, Sam Carpenter takes us on a journey from business despair to redemption, and upward. Today he is the partner in a thriving business, a consultant, speaker, and trainer. As he so aptly states, none of his current success would have been possible without his refinement of the systems mindset.
The Big Idea
Outside and Slightly Elevated
"The systems mindset is different from the mental paradigm most people pack around day to day. Instead of seeing yourself as an internal component of circumstances, enmeshed within the day’s swirling events, your vantage point is outside and slightly elevated from those events."
The systems mindset requires perspective–an elevated position of advantage—a way to view and review what we are doing and why. We need to be outside our business or personal lives and slightly elevated. Looking down on ourselves and/or our business, we gain a different perspective on our lives.
From this slightly elevated and outside position, we can better view the mechanizations of our business, and our lives. We can better study what is happening in the machine. What works, what doesn’t, and having a clear understanding of what needs to change. We can see the way things are and how they can be made better. From the outside and slightly elevated position, we can visualize how documented and implemented change will impact the daily workflow.
Sam Carpenter has given us a unique tool for self-evaluation. We can use this concept of “outside and slightly elevated” to evaluate most any system and come away with a better understanding of how the system currently works, and how it can be made better. As we expand our perspective of the system under review, we increase our understanding and awareness of how that specific system impacts us.
"My job was system management. At the time, I was unconsciously working the system, and after my awakening, this process would permanently and consciously insert itself into all parts of my life."
To implement Carpenter’s system you do more than just visualize, you must do some thinking on paper. You need to produce a set of documents that guide your business. These documents outline your businesses goals and procedures. They give your employees a track to run on with the ultimate result that your main input becomes “systems manager”—you tweak the systems as needed.
The first document we want to create is the “Strategic Objective”. Carpenter says this should be a one page document that defines your businesses goals and describes the businesses methodology. It also lists the strengths of the business and the action required. The creation of these documents is about the return on time and financial freedom. He further indicates this is not a mission statement, but a blueprint that lays out the day-to-day reality of our businesses.
His second suggested document is the “General Operating Principles”. Here, Carpenter says, we outline the guidelines we want to use for making decisions. (He also indicates it’s a good idea to make a set for your personal life as well.) These principles will keep you moving in a focused direction. The Strategic Objective is the bigger picture gained from the outside and slightly elevated vantage point. The General Operating Principles provide the basis for daily operation to achieve the visualized outcome of that elevated position.
The third and final document is actually a set of documents. These documents are a step-by-step procedure for each mission critical function in your business. Carpenter describes these as “street-level” documents. In other words, you should be able to pull an individual off the street, have this person follow the step-by-step procedures and complete the given task to the established standard. These documents automate the functional areas of your business. This in turn, frees up time. The end result is the majority of your time is spent evaluating and tweaking the procedures contained in the individual procedure documents.
Start with one. Which document could you create, today, that would help you better automate aspects of your business? It doesn’t have to be pretty. You just need to start.
"In the work the system world, 98 percent accuracy is perfect because trying to achieve that additional 2 percent demands too much additional output. It’s the law of diminishing returns in action, and it’s catch-22: the enormous energy required for this tiny betterment is in itself imperfection because that energy could have been put to much better use elsewhere."
In the third section of the book, Carpenter tackles various areas of your personal and professional life where his systems methodology can be applied. I found this to be a fascinating section. Here he outlines stories that provide examples of the system at work. This gives you a better understanding of how the system has been utilized to remedy various systemic challenges.
After reading this section you will start to really put the pieces together and see the systems in different parts of your life. You will have a heightened sense of awareness about your environment. I found myself deconstructing my job in ways I had never considered before. It is an amazing transformation, and a little creepy at the same time. Creepy in that you start to view your surroundings differently than others. It’s all good though, just be careful who engage in conversation about this stuff – some may look at you like you’re crazy.
This third section is written with strategies as the central theme. Carpenter puts forth ten strategies you can employ to increase your understanding of the systems mindset. These same strategies will prove valuable in any implementation. The deliverables are your visualization from the outside and slightly elevated position coupled with the critical documentation. When you finish reading, you will have a complete methodology to deconstruct any system, evaluate the components of the system from a vantage point, and reconstruct a better system – not a perfect system, but perhaps one that is better than perfect.
I think this is an excellent book with some real-world solutions to personal and business growth challenges. The backdrop story of Sam Carpenter’s struggles is one that we can all relate to in our own personal way. The three document methodology makes sense and offers up a different paradigm to address these challenges. The investment of time and study in this book should pay handsome dividends in personal productivity and business performance. If you are struggling with business and personal productivity issues, and if you have sought and failed with other methods, I would highly recommend you give Work the System a try.