Work the System - Book Summary and Highlights

Work the System

By Sam Carpenter

Rating: 2/10

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Work the System, by Sam Carpenter, is an excellent study on how he turned his company around, from the brink of death, to a successful, thriving enterprise. Late one night, while struggling to make payroll, he had an epiphany. He realized that every process within his organization was a system into itself. He could break each one of these systems down into a specific sequence of steps and make enhancements to those processes as needed.

With this insight, and making payroll one last time, he spent the next weeks with his management team breaking down their most repetitive and dysfunctional processes and documenting them, step by step, in what he calls “Working Procedures” or SOPs (standard operating procedures).

This process or reviewing processes, documenting and making them more efficient, doesn’t have an end date. It is an ongoing process that never ends, as there are always new efficiencies (maybe because of new technology) we can implement. In Sam’s experience, they were starting from scratch and had to document every process, a process within itself that took years to accomplish.

However, by looking at each process within the business as an independent system, and documenting the protocol that runs the system, step by step, Sam not only transformed his company but also reduced his working hours from 80+ to a handful of hours per week.

The Significance of Documentation

There were two key parts to his successful turnaround story; the change in mindset to see processes as independent systems and implementing standardized documentation for everyone to follow. The latter is a topic that does not get as much attention as it deserves.

I get it. Documenting business processes is just about the most boring thing you can do with your time. It is something I put off more than I should. However, the true story around Sam’s company transformation is within these detailed documents he and his team created.

By having detailed scripts of exactly how to handle each situation and getting his staff to follow these steps meticulously, the error rates and complaints dropped dramatically. There are a couple points I’d like to emphasize, though. First, what is unique about the way Sam implemented these protocols is that, while he requires his staff to follow the script step-by-step, he also allows them to bring changes to the script to their supervisors’ attention in real-time. And if there are no immediate objections to the change, they implement it immediately, without an endless series of meetings debating the merits of the change. The documentation is updated, and the staff follows the documentation.

Second, we can apply this documentation to any process. Having detailed procedures written for repeatable tasks ensures the result are consistent. However, even for tasks that are not repeatable, having the structure of the process documented ensures consistency and that we don’t overlook certain steps of the process.

For example, Sam owns a call center where he can document and script the phone calls based on what the client is calling for. We can document an assembly line procedure to the smallest detail, as there shouldn’t be any divergence from the script.

However, with other jobs, such as project management, the details change from project to project. There is no script to follow from start to finish. But if we take a step back, we can document the process at a higher level. A repeatable level. For example, the required documents and approval process for a project. The template for the requirements and project charter. The schedule for project updates to stakeholders.

Taking a step back and looking at each process with a systems mindset helps to break the process into repeatable tasks, which can then be documented and repeated.


Sam’s story is interesting and the way he committed to documenting the various company processes and having his staff follow the protocols step by step produced amazing results. His story would have made a great white paper. As for a book, though, it ends up being 200 pages of the same stories repeated over and over.

For anyone brand new to systems thinking, the book provides an excellent introduction to this way of thinking. As you read it though, skip the parts that seem redundant. There is nothing new buried in those paragraphs. Although, as a counterargument, you can make the case that this repletion is by design. By repeating himself, he is ingraining those thoughts into the reader’s mind.

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