I decided to read Work The System when it was highly recommended by two respected business thinkers that I follow online: Josh Kaufman and Sebastian Marshall. Also, because I’ve been very busy lately and a deep understanding of systems, standardization and automation will bring more control, less stress, and more time for value-adding activities like thinking, strategizing, and staying healthy.
The book didn’t disappoint, and left me with plenty of actionable steps.
I hereby summarize the main tenets of the book:
The systems of the world work perfectly 99.9% of the time: Everyday systems like air travel or electricity delivery almost never fail. We’ve become so used to it that we have come to expect it.
Businesses are machines: Like their mechanical counterparts, businesses have moving parts that operate in a linear 1-2-3 fashion. If a business sub-system is not working properly, we can isolate it, fix it and put everything back together, just like we would with a physical machine.
Large corporations operate with systems. Small businesses improvise: The reason multi-billion dollar companies grow and expand is the relentless implementation of systems. For small business owners, though, systems implementation is low in the scale of priorities. Those who are able to take the leap and embrace systems thinking will be orders of magnitude more successful than those who don’t.
We are all project engineers. Our job is to create, fix and maintain systems: This may come as a paradigm shift for most of us. By rethinking the way we work and redefining our role to project engineer (designing and repairing systems for a living) our productivity (and our sanity, I may add) will improve exponentially.
98% perfection: Borrowed from Pareto’s 80-20 rule, the author convincingly argues that 98% good is as well as perfect, since the remaining 2% would take too much time and effort for the benefit it would bring.
Errors of omission: Failures are not usually the consequence of overt mistakes but simply that somebody neglected or forgot something. This is perhaps one of the most powerful arguments in favor of systems: if a process is thoroughly documented and followed, the chances of things going wrong will decrease.
Quiet courage: Taking a cue from Steven Pressfield’s books, the author urges us to beat the resistance by sticking to the plan no matter what, even when we dont feel like it. He calls this quality “quiet courage”.
Point of sale thinking: An analogy to describe the habit of doing things at once, by either doing them ourselves or delegating them. As in POS systems, where different business sub-systems are updated instantly the moment a sale is recorded, our habit of doing things at once will make a positive difference on our business in the long run.
Singles and doubles, not home runs: Superb results are not the consequence of genius or bursts of inspiration, but of small, deliberate and consistent incremental improvements.
All these concepts lead us to the most important part of the book: the introduction of the three essential documents. They are:
- The Strategic Objective
- The Operating Principles
- The Operating Procedures.
The last of these three life changing tools, the Operating Procedures, are what make the day to day of a business go flawlessly. They are the detailed written instructions on how the different tasks and activities are to be performed.
The Strategic Objective states what you aim for (your vision and long term goals), while the Operating Principles serve as a guideline for decision making.
To help us internalize the concept, the author draws an interesting analogy: think of the Strategic Objective as the Declaration of Independence, the Operating Principles as the Constitution, and the Operating Procedures as the laws.
What makes this book remarkable, aside from the usefulness of its content, is the deep personal connection between the author and the concepts he lays out. Sam Carpenter credits the systems mindset for rescuing him from near burnout and 80-hour workweeks, and leading him to a more relaxed, productive life.
The book is also very well structured, half textbook/half biography, turning what would otherwise be a dry, tedious subject into an engaging read.