Sam Carpenter's "Work the System"
One of the by-products of Pink Slip is that I occasionally get sent books to review. All of the books I've been sent have their merits, but - in truth - I do not read business books for pleasure. This is my way of apologizing to the authors (or, rather, to their publicists) of the four books that have been languishing in my business book queue. Nothing personal, but when I put on my Lanz nightgown or my new sock monkey PJ's and get into bed, it tends to be with a good novel, short story collection, or memoir. (Recent authors: Mary Gordon, Edward Jones, Edna O'Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Barack Obama.)
But I finally did get around to reading Sam Carpenter's Work the System, which I would recommend to those running small businesses - especially those who have had no exposure to TQM, BPM, or any of the other put-a-process-in-place-or-else acronymmed systems that most of us who've logged corporate time have been through.
Sam is engaging, and nothing if not forthright - and he learned to put systems in place the hard way, after making a shambles of his life/health/business while running a small company (while, incidentally, single-dadding two kids).
Before Sam hit on the notion that it might help improve things if he had a few processes in place - which he describes as an epiphany of sorts - he was, metaphorically speaking, hitting on something else. And what he was hitting on, metaphorically speaking, was a continuous flow of moles - as in whack-a-mole.
For anyone who hasn't been to an arcade, carnival, ethnic festival, or downscale beach in the last twenty years, when you play whack-a-mole, you're given a rubber mallet which you use to whack the heads of moles that randomly pop up - faster and faster as the game proceeds. The point of whack-a-mole (if whack-a-mole can be said to have a point, other than the pure, simple pleasure of whacking an inanimate object on the skull with your full might) is that you never get to relax. Until the game ends, those moles keep popping up, never where you expect them, never in the same place twice.
A more familiar corporate term for this is operating in perpetual fire-fighting mode, and it's something that I'm quite sure that 99.99% of us have been guilty of in our work life.
I can't remember what the task was, but years ago, I was performing a regular task that should have been at least partially automated. My boss pointing out that I was going about this task the hard way, and my response was "sometimes it's easier to do things the hard way."
We were both right, but he was righter than I was.
Yes, every month it took less time to accomplish the task than it would have if I'd taken the time to automate things.
But, over the course of a couple of months, the ROI on taking the time to automate the task would have easily paid off. I just never made the time for it.
This is the fundamental point that Sam makes in his book: take a cold, hard look at the tasks in your business, and make sure you have processes - processes that you meticulously document and scrupulously follow - in place that remove the inefficiencies. By putting your energies into "fixing one system after another", you'll removed the need to spend your time "careening through the day randomly taking care of whatever problems erupt."
Sam also devotes some time to his recommendation that every company develop a mission/strategy/roadmap/vision - whatever you want to call it, if you don't have one, you won't know where you're going. And you have to examine the tasks that you're spending your time on in light of your m/s/r/v. If what you're doing doesn't contribute to furtherance of said m/s/r/v, you really do have to ask yourself why you're doing it. Either you've got the wrong m/s/r/v, or the task is a waste of time.
As I said, none of this would be a major revelation to anyone familiar with the fundamentals of the myriad quality and process efforts that have been around for years. What's refreshing about Work the System is that it's written not from the perspective of a big time management consultant and/or high falutin' academic, but from the perspective of a small business man who figured it out for himself.
That, in itself, should recommend Work the System to other small business people.
I spent most of my career in companies - large and small - that played a mean game of whack-a-mole, but more or less fell down when it came to developing coherent processes and/or sticking to strategic business objectives. Oh, we got trained up in TQM or BPM. We put the processes more or less in place. But them we ignored them. So much more fun to keep playing whack-a-mole!
But guess what? The moles of the world are safe from getting whacked by those particular companies' mallets because - surprise, surprise - those particular companies are no longer around.
A small business owner could do worse than follow Sam Carpenter's advice.