Book Reviews

Review of “Work the System” by Sam Carpenter

By Jon Miller Updated on April 7th, 2022

The title of Sam Carpenter’s Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less is deceiving. It sounds like another “4 hour workweek” promise-of-personal-wealth-and-happiness book of the moment. In fact “work the system” even suggests cheating, something Sam Carpenter is careful to point out is not part of his message. It was not the title, the cover, or third party reviews that motivated me to pick up and read this book but rather because of Sam’s story and character that comes through on his website WTS Enterprises.

I recommend this book for several reasons. First, it is written in a no-nonsense manner, introducing ideas that are in Sam’s words “mechanical and simple, not theoretical, political or religious.” In other words, the advice is highly practical. Second, the entire book is built around Sam’s personal experience both in his personal life and the continuous improvement journey at his company Centratel. I am sure readers will find entire passages, if not pages and chapters, that they will be able to share with colleagues and to apply to their own situation. Third, Sam’s book is a strong validation of the management system we call “lean” even though Sam is not writing about lean, does not have a background in lean, and only recently became aware of the Toyota Production System.

Early in the book, the author warns the reader that after being introduced to his Work the System method, we will open our eyes, be unable to close the common sense solutions that we see, and that success will require hard work. Similar words are spoken at the start of almost every lean transformation, “You will see waste all around you, be unable to stop seeing it, and it will drive you crazy. The only way to get rid of this waste is by engaging people in continuous improvement,” or to work the system.

Centratel is a telephone answering service based in Oregon. Sam bought it when he was, by his own admission, far too young and brash to manage it properly. We learn how he faced struggles, overcame them, and how

“For Centratel, the system-improvement process continues nine years after the implementation of the Work the System method. Now, problems are so few that when one surfaces, my staff pounce on it with a vengeance.”

A big part of Sam’s success in life and with Centratel has been his recognition that, “A life’s mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that compose it.”

How does Sam Carpenter’s method work? At a high level, it begins by setting the objective and principles, identifying the systems, and improving the systems. The parallels in lean jargon may be hoshin kanri, value stream mapping, and kaizen. It’s refreshing to read a book that is about lean, but never mentions lean and is completely free of jargon. Readers of this blog and practitioners of kaizen will feel a kinship with the author’s description of the separation, dissection, and repair of systems, documentation of systems, and the ongoing maintenance of systems.

Sam explains that “Few people think of their problems as a result of system failure” and yet “99.9% of everything works fine” and that by taking an “outside and slightly elevated” bird’s eye view we can learn to focus on improving systems. Saying, “Each of us is a system of systems” the author gives examples of how to apply this thought process for problem-solving to personal issues and goals.

Some gems of wisdom lean practitioners can directly relate to include the observation that most errors are errors of omission, that documentation of standard and procedures requires “ruthlessness and flexibility” in order to achieve the holy grail of consistency. Consistency is also achieved by following a simple piece of practical wisdom from the Sam’s grandfather, that there was “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Standard work, 5S the reduction of variation, all free from jargon and explained through real life experience.

The book is highly readable due to the effective use of short stories to illustrate the main ideas. In addition, the author uses comparisons such as how traffic rules in the USA and in Pakistan to demonstrate the advantages of cooperation supported by well-documented rules and standards. The supporting arguments about his system for managing one’s work and life through analysis of the life and music of Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison and Frank Zappa appeals on many levels.

In the book Sam Carpenter generously shares not only practical examples from his company but also Centratel’s 30-point guiding principles which govern how people work. If we took just six of them we would have a fairly good summary of lean management:

“Employees come first”

“Employee training is structured, scheduled and thorough”

“We operate the company via documented procedures and systems”

“We double-check everything before release”

“Problems are gifts that inspire us to action”

“We find the simplest solution”

There is a lot of simplicity and beauty in this book. As a student and teacher of lean principles it was an unexpected pleasure discover a unique lean management system independently invented by a local telephone answering service company. It goes to show that the ideas behind Work the System and lean management do work, when applied with patience. In Sam’s words:

“Work the System is a throwback of sorts, back to an age when there was thoughtful preparation with no expectation of immediate payback.”

Although Sam presents the ideas in this book as big business best practices that even small businesses and individuals can successfully adopt, in my experience many of the world’s largest companies and most respected brands seldom practice these ideas very well. I hope this book finds a wide readership by people in organizations of all sizes. Are you ready to work your system?

  1. Eric Myers

    September 29, 2010 - 12:58 am

    Great review. Sounds like a good book i will have to pick up. I am always looking for ideas to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness for my business. Thanks.

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