Work the System by Sam Carpenter: Notes14 min read

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Work The System will fundamentally change the way you view the world, by showing you the systems all around you and giving you the guiding principles to influence the right ones to make your business successful.

Sam Carpenter has been the CEO and president of Centratel, one of the US’s top providers of phone answering services – the ladies and gents who handle your customer service via the phone – for the past 30 years. During those years, he developed what he calls ‘a systems mindset.’ He started spotting systems everywhere, and subsequently, optimizing the ones he could control.

He turned this approach into a business philosophy, taught it to many corporations as a consultant and, in 2008, turned it into this book. Work The System is a wholistic descriptions of the nature of systems, their ubiquity in life and nature, and how you can use systems for yourself to optimize your life.

Here are the 3 key things you should take home from it:

The world runs on systems, and they work in spite of humans, not because of us.

Start focusing on the systems you can control, and stop complaining about the ones you can’t.

To analyze the systems in your life, take a step back.

Ready to oil the machinery? Let’s go!

Lesson 1: The world runs on systems, and they work in spite of humans, not because of us.

Do you sometimes feel like the captain of a tiny sailboat, constantly being thrown around by winds, waves, storms, and other forces outside of your control?

There’s no reason to.

Look at the world. Why doesn’t the entire planet blow up every other day?

Why don’t we have a nuclear war yet, even though there’s been plenty of opportunities for one?

It’s because of systems.

A system is any composition of several components, which work together to accomplish a single goal.

The beauty of systems is that they’re naturally inclined to be both stable and efficient.

There are millions and millions of systems working in the world right this second, and they’re the reason we don’t need a CEO of the world and can still go to bed at night, resting assured that the world won’t end tomorrow.

Now you might think we did a good job in making it so, but actually, we’re not responsible for everything working so well.

In fact, we’re rather responsible when things go wrong, because whenever chaos wrecks a system, there are usually humans at fault.

For example a BMW pricing manager might decide that the US prices for their cars are too cheap, because the cars cost more in Germany, and slap on an extra 30%. That will likely lead to an outrage with US customers, dealers, and sales managers, and they might end the cooperation altogether.

The reasons we humans constantly put errors into perfectly fine systems, is that our view of whether a system runs well is very subjective.

That means to mess up less and make the most of the systems in your life, you first have to see them, and then understand how they work.

Lesson 2: Start focusing on the systems you can control, and stop complaining about the ones you can’t.

Now you might look around and say: “Yeah, yeah, that’s all fine, but there are so many systems I can’t control!”


But then why complain about them?

You can spend all day moaning about the oil price, the stock market, or the political party who’s in charge.

But that won’t make oil cheaper, your stocks go up, or change who’s president.

What you can do is get a car with less fuel consumption, or give it up altogether, buy an investment book and go vote in the election.

The truth is that no one has control over all the systems in their life, which means you’re not especially disadvantaged.

Most of the time, the only reason things don’t go your way is because you don’t even try. Just because their vote doesn’t decide the election, many people don’t vote at all – a huge mistake.

Can I influence how many people sign up for Four Minute Books or get a Blinkist subscription because of me? No.

But I sure can get up in the morning and write another summary.

This is the hand you’ve been dealt. Start playing it.

Lesson 3: Take a step back to analyze the systems in your life.

The way to find out what you can and can’t control is to take a step back and look at the systems in your life from the outside.

A gear inside a machine never knows of anything more than the gears it directly connects with.

But when you take some time to think and reflect, you can see how the individual gears relate to the rest of the machine and how the whole mechanism works.

This will let you break down systems into step-by-step processes (it’s what I do), and help you spot the individual parts that need fixing.

Take some time to step back, look at the systems in your life from outside, and you’ll get a much better grasp of where you need to use your wrench to fix things.

My personal take-aways

Work The System actually has a lot of business advice, but I loved the philosophical aspect of Sam’s systems approach so much, I tried to break it down for the average Joe, like myself. I think it’s more valuable than specific tips and hopefully, this way, you can get the most out of it in your own life.

The Book in Three Sentences

Life is an orderly collection of individual linear systems each of which can be improved and perfected one at a time.

A business’ mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that comprise it.

Getting what you want—in life and work—lies in focusing on ‘working the systems’ that create the results.

The Five Big Ideas

Your life and business are a result of systems you have complete control, systems over which you have no control at all, and systems over which you have some but not complete control.

The Work the System methodology involves (1) documenting your systems, (2) separating, dissection, and repairing your systems, and (3) maintaining your systems on an ongoing basis.

Ninety-eight percent accuracy is “perfect” because trying to achieve that additional 2 percent demands too much additional energy.

“Systems are the invisible threads that hold the fabric of our lives together.”

The Work the System documentation includes (1) a Strategic Objective, (2) General Operating Principles and (3) Working Procedures.

Work the System Summary

“Your life is composed of systems that are yours to control—or not control.”

“The simplest solution is invariably the most correct solution.”

“A life’s mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that compose it.”

“If it is true that ‘a life’s mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that compose it,’ then getting what you want in life does not lie in manipulating outcomes; doing that is a distraction. Rather, getting what you want lies in delving deeper, in focusing on ‘working the systems’ that create the results.”

The Three Steps of the Work the System Method.


Separation, dissection, and repair of systems

Ongoing maintenance of systems

“In the Work the System world, 98 percent accuracy is ‘perfect’ because trying to achieve that additional 2 percent demands too much additional energy. It’s the law of diminishing returns in action, and it’s a catch-22: The enormous energy required for this tiny increment of improvement is in itself imperfection because that energy could have been put to much better use elsewhere.” (Sam: knowing when enough is enough is a crucial part of understanding The Exponential Curve of Excellence.)

“We make things worse in the long term by violating systems in the short term, as we ignore the simple truth that disruption of an efficient system always has its price.”

“There is a direct connection between happiness and the amount of control we attain.” (Sam: Charles Duhigg discusses this at length in Smarter Faster Better.)

“Happiness is not found in the control we have over others. It’s found in the control we have over the moment-to-moment trajectory of our own lives, and more exactly—here we get to the root of things—the control of the personal systems that are ours to adjust and maintain.” (Sam: much of Carpenter’s thinking is influenced by Stoicism and echoes what William B. Irvine writes in A Guide to The Good Life: ““There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control.”)

“Orderliness and attention to detail are the roots of peace.”

“As we focus on the events outside ourselves that we cannot control, we overlook the imperfect aspects of our own lives that we can control.”

“We don’t recognize that recurring personal pain is not often the result of a flawed world, but more usually the result of our own flawed personal systems—systems we can repair.”

“If we don’t overtly take control of the forward flow of our own lives, the mistake of a lifetime is just around the corner, ready to flatten us when we least expect it.”

“Short, quality products or services, a stable staff, and profitability are the result of the quality systems that produce them, not the reverse.”

“As you go through your day, think of systems you can implement that will prevent problems down the line.”

“Is there something you do to your body that is making it less efficient? Are you excelling in system management in some areas while sabotaging yourself in others?”

“Systems want to be efficient.”

“In the systems that compose the world’s workings, there is not a cosmic inclination for chaos. Rather, there is a default propensity toward order and efficiency.”

“By fixing your life’s individual systems—by identifying them one at a time and then rebuilding them one by one—order, control, and peace accumulate incrementally.”

“In the workplace, permanence happens first by creating written descriptions of how systems are to operate, and second by making sure responsible parties follow the steps described in the documentation.”

“Systems are the invisible threads that hold the fabric of our lives together.”

“Whether an outcome is to your liking or not, the underlying system is performing exactly as it was constructed.”

“For any recurring problem, there is a path to sorting things out: Take the inefficient system apart and fix the pieces one by one.”

Ask yourself, “Is there a major problem you are coping with right now? Can you break it down into segments? Can you modify the segments one at a time?”

“The mantra of the Work the System method is to isolate-fix-maintain.”

“It is not enough to know what to do. One must take action.”

A system is “a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.”

“Silent and invisible, your systems work without pause. Sometimes they work alone, but often they work together. They support and complement each other—and sometimes they fight each other.”

“The Work the System methodology itself is a system. It’s the controlling management tool used to analyze and maintain your personal systems. It’s the master control mechanism for organizing yourself into an efficient life: a life of serenity, prosperity, and contribution.”

“If the majority of time is spent examining and tweaking systems to perfection, great results will materialize.”

“Stop looking for a sudden hand-of-God solution to problems. Drop the idea that life is convoluted and mysterious, strip away the complexity, and get to work repairing the underlying inefficient mechanisms one by one.”

“Too often we go after a holistic, bumper-sticker solution when it would be more sensible to simply examine the primary system’s context and fix a faulty component.”

“One can compensate for the negative outcome of a recurring problem, but without repairing the errant system that caused the problem, the problem will undoubtedly occur again.”

“The improvement of a system is a system improvement, and the documentation of that system improvement is called a Working Procedure.”

“It’s a beautiful thing, this system-improvement process, because as time passes things improve. Imagine a system that improves with time rather than wears out.”

“Your job is not to be a fire-killer. Your job is to prevent fires.”

“Most problems stem from nonexistent system management and show themselves as errors of omission.”

“Once you get the systems perspective, you will see fire-killing all around you.”

“What is the most important difference between the manager of a large successful business and the manager of a small struggling business? The first manages systems; the second copes with bad results.”

“Each thing we do is a component of a system.”

“First, make the various systems consciously visible. Second, one at a time, bring them to the foreground for examination. Third, adjust them. Fourth, document them. Fifth, maintain them.”

You must stand outside of it if you are to see how you are a part of the larger system.

“Getting things right most of the time is good enough.”

“Once the Work the System methodology is internalized and applied, you will be a different person.”

“The Strategic Objective is your Declaration of Independence, your mandate for a better future. The General Operating Principles document is your Constitution, a set of guidelines for future decision making. The Working Procedures are your laws, the rules of your game.”

“A primary thrust of the Work the System method is to generate extra time so you can better prepare.”

“The largest obstacle to better preparation is the reluctance to invest the necessary time to be better prepared.”

The Work the System Documentation

Strategic Objective. The one-page Strategic Objective document will provide overall direction for your business and your personal life.

General Operating Principles. Just two or three pages long, this condensed “guidelines for decision making” document requires ten to twenty hours to complete, but these hours will be spread over a period of a month or two.

Working Procedures. This documentation is the specific collection of protocols that outline exactly how the systems of your business or your job will operate. Ninety-five percent of your procedures will follow a 1-2-3 step format. The other 5% will follow an open, “narrative” format.

“First you work your systems. Then your systems do the work.”

“Management works in the system; leadership works on the system.” —Stephen Covey

“Avoid becoming caught up in the work. Instead, step outside, look down, and isolate individual systems on paper in a 1-2-3 format. Then, deciding overall what you want the systems to accomplish, identify defects as well as outside changing situations. Then improve the systems, always documenting those improvements.”

“Right this minute, looking around from the space you now occupy, is there a system that can be improved?”

“The successful leader’s job is to keep the wheels of the mechanism turning at full speed, and with enormous efficiency.”

“Without exception, the businesses that are large and successful are ‘working their systems.’ And the ones without thoughtful direction and structured, sensible protocols—most small businesses—are struggling. Very simple.”

“An effective process must be set in concrete, and that means creating it in hard and/or soft copy, distributing it, and then ensuring that it is implemented.”

“If each component of an organization is nearly flawless, the organization as a whole will be nearly flawless.”

“Getting things too perfect is counterproductive and shortsighted.”

“It is a choice not to do something that should be done.”

“Watch the events of your day as they occur, and while they are occurring, ask, ‘What am I not doing right now that is holding me back?’”

“In everything you do, think beyond immediate temptation and stick with the plan as outlined in your critical documents. Your documentation will keep you from sinking as it relentlessly moves you toward your goals.”

“Quantity of communication connects directly to any success or failure.”

“It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste time.” —Henry Ford

“Enormous advancement comes from spending the most alert periods of the day doing the most important system-building tasks.’”

“For a given primary system, in order to ensure that the desired result occurs over and over again, the task is to adjust that primary system’s subsystems so the correct components are being used and they are sequenced properly.”

“Focus on the mechanical systems that produce the results, not the other way around, and never doubt that a superb collection of subsystems will produce a superb primary system.”

Recommended Reading

If you like Work the System, you may also enjoy the following books:

How to Write Copy That Sells: The Step-By-Step System for More Sales, to More Customers, More Often by Ray Edwards

The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber

Buy The Book: Work the System

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