Note: Centratel CEO Sam Carpenter has written extensively on system improvements, and his techniques have built Centratel’s entire process. Centratel’s Medical Answering Service connects patients with on-call physicians seamlessly. Below is what he has shared and applied directly at Centratel.

This is an excerpt from the Third Edition of Work the System, and has much to do with Mole-Whacking. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, it’s an “arcade redemption game” that exactly describes how too many people live their lives. -sc

“If you are like most people, you have not consciously considered the involvement of systems in your daily life. Therefore, you have not consciously thought in terms of adjusting them in order to eliminate problems from occurring in the first place. For most people, whacking emerging moles is how life is played out. There is no thought of burrowing deep into the mole hole for some serious mole extermination.

The little moles are cute-faced decoys that distract us from the critical moves we should be making. I say, let’s burrow deep inside their tunnels and eradicate them all. And then, before we leave, let’s do some serious manipulation—let’s do what we have to do—so no more moles show up later. Then, confident that moles will never distract us again, we’ll climb back above ground and start fixing the other processes of our lives that need fixing.

Here is a mechanical truth: one can compensate for the negative outcome of a recurring problem, but without repairing the errant process that caused the problem, the problem will undoubtedly occur again.

Few people understand the systems approach of successful leaders who intuitively grasp that a seemingly isolated problem is not isolated at all. These leaders see problems as the result of a flaw in an errant system—an errant system that can be fixed. For these leaders (more often from the private sector than the public sector), a problem is not a disappointment just to be corrected and then written off. It’s a wake-up call. This means that once the manager corrects the immediate negative effects, there is a second step. It is this second step that is key. The problem’s cause is traced to the errant subsystem, which is then modified so the problem doesn’t happen again. This is how successful people negotiate their days!

So, through the astute leader’s observation, a problem in the primary system calls for a subsystem modification. The leader makes the permanent enhancement, causing the primary system to be incrementally more robust and reliable than before the problem occurred. Addressing the problem, and then taking this second step to fix the cause of the problem, distinguishes people who are in control from people who are not—the successful from the unsuccessful.

The improvement of a system is a system improvement, and the documentation of that improvement is a Working Procedure. The documentation of each revision is critical. Making an enhancement without it guarantees that the improved system will revert to an inefficient unpredictability borne of shortcuts, outdated but comfortable methodologies, the pressures of the day, and/or confusion infused by assorted personalities and talents. Documentation converts an organic process into a mechanical entity. It gives permanence. It has to happen.

Again, by focusing on repairing problems in this way, the primary system becomes ever more efficient and rough edges disappear. It’s a beautiful thing because as time passes, the mechanism gets better and better.

Imagine a system that improves with time rather than wears out!

At the start, these one-by-one efforts can seem daunting. You work at them for a while and then ask, “When will the problems cease, and when can I stop fixing and documenting?” But you carry on. After plugging along for a short while, you notice the pace and quantity of incoming problems has decreased. You see the fire killings aren’t coming so fast, and this is the moment in time when a powerful belief takes hold. Now, with fervor, you accelerate the process so even fewer errors occur, and your organization and personal life become ever more smooth and efficient. The bottom line improves while vitality increases. Now you’re managing your life, working your systems.

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