Sam Carpenter: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 28th, 2011 by bobmorris

Sam Carpenter

A resident of Bend, Oregon, author and speaker Sam Carpenter has been featured by hundreds of media, including NPR, ESPN radio, US News Radio, and Small Business Television. President and CEO of Centratel, the premier telephone answering service in the United States, he has a background in engineering, publishing, telecommunications and journalism. Carpenter founded and oversees Kashmir Family Aid, a 501c3 non-profit that aids surviving school children of the Northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir earthquake of October 2005. Originally from upstate New York, and an Oregonian since 1975, Sam’s outside interests include mountaineering, skiing, cycling, reading, traveling, photography and writing. He is married to Linda Carpenter who works with him as CFO at Centratel.

I urge you to check out all of Carpenter’s resources by clicking here.
Morris: Before discussing Work the System, a few general questions. First, other than family members, who have had the greatest influence on your personal development? How so?

Carpenter: Athletic coaches in High School and instructors in my technical school. Back in the 60’s and 70’s there was a more pragmatic approach to life: work hard, get an education, land a job, work hard some more, be a success. Not a bad formula. Today, there is a preponderance of “soft” lessons in school, about what’s right, what’s moral. Sounds great, but never mind all the focus on that: Teach my kid to read and write please. As a parent, I’ll do the soft part. Anyway, the educational system’s preoccupation with “getting in touch with one’s feelings” makes me gag.

Morris: All of us have our share of dead-ends, dry wells, detours, “crucibles,” etc. Throughout your life thus far, from which situations have you learned the most valuable lessons and what are they?

Carpenter: Dropping out of school and trying to make my way, I finally hit a brick wall. Scrubbing toilets, digging ditches. Had to do something else. So when I got a clue that it would be up to me, I took action. Also, I learned to be dogmatic about finishing what I started. Later on in my business, I wanted to quit over and over again, but couldn’t. I was a single parent with two small children at home. I HAD to continue so that’s what I did and here is where I leaned how important it was not to quit. No heroics at all, really, but a seriously ruthless attitude about not giving up did come about.

Morris: How specifically have you applied those lessons?

Carpenter: I have created a life of freedom and great wealth by practicing the methods I describe in the book. I’m not a theorist. Beyond the systems methodology I practice, it’s critical to be persistent; not to give up. There’s nothing new in that concept of course. One must keep going not matter how black it gets (and, interesting, that blackness is usually born of mental fatigue). I only quit if the mechanics are useless; when quitting is the most logical thing to do. My mountain climbing helps me here. Any climber knows that reaching the top of the mountain is something critically important, beyond the “it’s the journey that is most important” sentimentality. Reaching goals has to do with drive, acting like an adult and having something of value to offer to others.

Morris: Opinions are divided, sometimes sharply divided, on the subject of “balancing” what is most important in one’s career with what’s most important in other domains such as family, personal interests, and community. What are your own thoughts about all this?

Carpenter: Well, the kids left my charge long ago but now I have other older family members who need help (three parents, in their early 90’s, very recently entering independent living facilities here in our hometown of Bend, Oregon), so Linda (my wife) and I just do what we need to do with those responsibilities. We really love our parents too, and have huge respect for each of them. They have much to teach us, still. All of them remain very, very sharp mentally.  Regarding the other parts of my life…I work at my business maybe two hours a week. I write from 10-15 hours a week. I read lots of books – it’s as much therapy as anything else. I spend another 6-8 hours with current periodicals and newspapers.

The other times I’m outside or entertaining myself in one way or the other. And Linda and I travel often as well (I’m in the Adirondack Mountains on a solo-hiking gig as I write this in front of the lodge fireplace.) It’s a good life. Linda joins me in a few days and we’ll visit Boston and Montreal. THIS is balance for me. Linda is much the same. We spend a lot of time together. I’m not a community joiner though, and neither is Linda. We tend to be solitary much of the time although we love being with other people.

Morris: Please explain how and why you became involved with Kashmir Family Aid and what are some of the goals for this organization during the next 12-18 months?

Carpenter: In 2003, I had business dealings in Lahore, Pakistan, and during one of my visits I was able to get into the backcountry where I became enamored with the people of the small villages. The business dealings ended but two years later there was the October 2005 earthquake and I found myself on a plane to go help somehow. I lived in the epicenter of the quake zone for several weeks, with Kashmiris, returned, and began the non-profit. We are in the process of raising money to build a school in a very remote part of Azad Kashmir.

Morris: Peter Drucker has much of value to say about non-profits and devoted most of his attention to them in the years prior to his death. Here’s my question for you: What can for-profits learn from non-profits, and, what can non-profits learn from for-profits?

Carpenter: Of course, both types of organizations would benefit from becoming more efficient. Non-profits use “other people’s money” so the challenge is not just to economize and become efficient, but to live up to the expectations of contributors. Nevertheless, government organizations and non-profits share the same malady…a less than passionate desire to make a profit. That makes for inefficiency. As I get older, I’m 60 as I write this; it seems more and more important for me to share my time and money. I’ll add this: I want to make that decision, not to be directed to do it by the government.

Morris: By what process did you get to Bend, Oregon?

Carpenter: I was born and raised in upstate New York but always wanted to live in Oregon and “work in the great woods.” After tech school, at 25 years of age, my wife and five month old son headed west with everything we owned in a homemade trailer behind the dodge. We had $400 and the vague prospect of a job. It was quite the adventure. I worked at first in Nebraska, pumping gas, making enough to get the rest of the way out to Oregon.

Morris: Now please focus on your latest book, Work the System. In the Introduction, you acknowledge that for fifteen years, your business  (Centratel) “was a chaotic morass of endless work, fire-killing, debt, health problems, and bad relationships” and then you experienced “an unexpected shift in perception that began the transformation of your existence.” Please explain.

Carpenter: From the book: “I underwent an enlightenment of sorts. It sounds corny, but in my mind, I rose up and out of the jumble that was my life; I was no longer an integral part of it. Floating upward, “outside and slightly elevated” from the chaos, I gazed down at the details of my business, spread out neatly as if on display on a tabletop. From this bird’s-eye perspective, it struck me that Centratel was simply a self-contained mechanical device! It was—and is—nothing more than the sum of an assemblage of sequential systems: answering the phones, sales, payroll preparation, scheduling, handling complaints, etc.—each executed in a linear fashion whereby one step follows another step until the sequence for that particular system is complete.

Instinctively, I knew the rest of my life operated in the same way: as an assemblage of separate and independent systems, occurring in predictable, reliable sequences according to their own individual construction. (Yes, I thought, of course these systems intermingle and affect each other—a holistic assemblage to be sure—but that holism can’t mask the separateness of them, the beauty of their individuality.)

My thoughts raced at light speed as I marveled at the simple beauty of it. I understood that my previous vision of the world had been wrong. The world is not a chaotic jumble of people, objects, and events clanging together in disarray. The world is a place of order and logic, a place of predictability. The world is a collection of logical systems!” Note that at my website ( I post a weekly column going into more detail about the work the system processes. I urge readers to go to the site to sign on to my mailing list.

Morris: You point out to your reader, “your personal systems are the threads of the fabric of your life. Together, your personal systems add up to you.” As I read that, I was immediately reminded of the chariot races in ancient Rome when each of the four had unique strengths but all of them had to be in seamless coordination to function best.” Is that a fair assessment of personal system?

Carpenter: That’s a good analogy. The systems of our businesses and our lives are wildly diverse. Each one has its unique protocol. The key as a leader is to know enough of the operations of the various systems, both business and personal life, so that improvements can be made when flaws are detected. I call this “working the system.” (I also like the word “tweaking” to describe what is to be done as a result of this constant focus on system improvement.) The improvement of the various systems makes them, and the business (and one’s life), super-efficient. Most businesses and personal lives are clumsy as people spend too much time trying to rearrange the bad results of their unmanaged business and personal systems. (Read that last sentence again. It’s critical to understand that point.) By becoming efficient one easily steps ahead.

Morris: What about organizational systems?

Carpenter: I have nothing flashy to say here, just that there has to be a strong leader who has the respect of the rest of the organization including the Board of Directors, employees and customers. Committees are notoriously inefficient due to squabbling: I am not a fan of committees, “summits” and the like. And because this subject came up just the other day in my own life, I’ll add that I don’t care for “team building” exercises. If the business can’t get a solid team-framework internally, within the context of everyday business, there is something wrong. Anyway, I think employees privately laugh at internal team-building efforts. At Centratel, our people work an intense yet satisfying 40-hour week and make good money, then they go home to their personal lives. No games. The leader and the staff have either put together a great place to work, or not.

Morris: Are all the systems (organizational as well as personal) already in place or a few/several/most require development?

Carpenter: In most small businesses there are very few, if any, documented systems. That’s why most businesses are small and struggling. All large successful businesses, without exception, have carefully documented their systems. The work the system method requires some serious up-front effort to put together documentation. Then, life gets easy. (Per the WTS methodology, personal life doesn’t require much documentation, just a different) perspective.

Morris: What kind of a mindset is required to identify various systems (organizational as well as personal), develop each to maximum efficiency, and meanwhile coordinate them? Is a specific method required?

Carpenter: One must have what I call the radar-on-the-top-of-the-head mentality. Imagine a ship with the radar at the very highest point of the ship endlessly circling, looking for information. As a default mental stance, the leader must be able to detect flaws and spot opportunities for improvement even when not deliberately thinking about it. And it never ends: In my own business which is very, very efficient, if I took 30 minutes to go through the operation, just walking around, I could find dozens of improvements that could be made. System improvement is a full-time job and one can be very poor at it or very good at it.

Morris: Please explain what you mean by a “holistic result.”

Carpenter: This is where all the systems of the business are contributing to the two, three or four primary goals of the company. Everything is in sync. Systems are not fighting each other. Note that the work the system method is pointedly non-holistic, as it concentrates on one system at a time, constantly tweaking each one so it functions at the highest efficiency. (Yes, of course the surrounding systems are considered; yes, systems must be compatible with each other.)

Morris: What is a “preventative system” and why should it be installed?Carpenter: A system that doesn’t produce anything but, by its very existence, prevents bad things from happening. I’ll give an example: a software monitoring system that will easily detect aimless web surfing by staff. If employees know it’s there, they won’t surf.
Morris: Please explain your choice and use of the “mole whacking” metaphor.

Carpenter: Whac-A-Mole is a game where little furry mechanical moles keep poking their little heads up out of various holes. The player has a mallet and hits each mole as it comes up. Of course, the moles gain speed and the mallet is flying ever faster and more furious. Points accumulate according to the dexterity of the player. This is how most people run their businesses and lives but the problem is, there are no “points” for the ever-increasing frenetic activity The work-the-system method figuratively kills the moles where they live and so there is no more Whac-a-Mole game. This is why I work only 2 hours per week at my business while residing solidly in the top 1% of wage-earners. Many, many of my followers report similar reports

Morris: You assert in Chapter 4 that the world is 99.9 percent efficient. How can that be verified? Even then, so what?

Carpenter: Just look around wherever you are now and verify it for yourself. Don’t buy into the ubiquitous presumption that all is chaos. Here’s a quick exercise:  If you are in your house, see that the faucets in the sinks and tubs and/or showers all work, the electricity works, and it’s my guess all of the appliances work. The roof, sewer, telephone, TV, etc. all operate just fine. Go further. See that 99.9% of everything around you is working perfectly. Very simple. It’s a far cry from what the media would have you believe.

The general consensus is that the world is going to Hell even though the simple facts completely obliterate that common assumption. Once one “gets” the systems mindset, moment-to-moment existence becomes wondrous. “Get” the life-really-is-a-miracle mindset and become synched with life as it truly is, then join the one out of 100 who actually gets what they want in life.

Morris: Which of the various “linear systems” are under our direct control? How should we manage them?

Carpenter: Biological: the food we eat, the exercise we get, how we groom ourselves, etc. Business: most every system, if we own it, but one can’t always control suppliers, etc. Physical: health and vigor. In business, with the right framework, your employees will “climb on board” with your objectives and methodology. One doesn’t “control” employees but the systems they use can be controlled. Get them to buy into the system focus (which is easy because they will construct the documented systems themselves). When considering what systems are in our control, think of Stephen Covey’s “circle of influence.”

Morris: I think the processes of execution and transformation you discuss in Chapter 5 bear stunning resemblance to what Joseph Schumpeter characterizes as “creative destruction.” Do you agree?

Carpenter: Yes, but more in the sense that existing systems are constantly being adjusted, not necessarily eliminated. I would call it “creative system improvement” instead. Although it’s sometimes wise (and exciting) to totally eliminate a system, that’s not the ultimate goal. Usually, system improvement is just that: ongoing improvement in an existing system.

Morris: You assert that the WTS methodology “itself is a system…the controlling management tool used to analyze and maintain your personal systems.” That statement evokes images of a scientist feverishly at work in a control room filled with all manner of dials, gauges, switches, and bubbling beakers filled with multi-colored liquids. Who or what is really in control?

Carpenter: Well, OK. But the image you give of the scientist is chaos (“feverishly at work”). The work the system “system” is the overall template for deliberately getting things in order, simplified and efficient. My book is a system, for sure: A guideline for a life of system improvement.
Morris: Briefly, what are the fundamentals of WTS documentation and why is each important?

Carpenter: Three documents are needed. First, the Strategic Objective. One page in length, it tells where you’re going and how. It sets the stage for every activity and procedure, including the second document and third primary documents. The second document, maybe three pages long, the Operating Principles, specifies the guiding decision-making statements for the business. This keeps the leader’s mind on-task and gets the entire team going in the same direction, able to make correct and consistent decisions based on company fundamentals. The third set of documents is the Working Procedures. These are the down-and-dirty mechanical protocols of the smallest elements of the business, where 99% of time is spent. I spell out much more detail about these key documents in my book

Morris: On Page 99, you observe that the world “operates at 99.9 percent efficiency because there are unalterable physical laws that are powered by an unfathomable strength – a strength that hungers for order and efficiency.” Here’s a three-part question: Who or what possesses that “hunger”? How can it be accommodated? And in that event, will 99.9 percent efficiency be achieved?

Carpenter: The hunger is the ultimate mystery, isn’t it? I can’t answer this question although I do dwell on it in the book. It’s OK to not have all the answers. In any case, if chaos were the underlying force, everything would be chaos, wouldn’t it? Instead, there is incredible order in the universe. The hunger, and I think we can call this God, is powerful stuff…just seeing it and appreciating it will cause a person to get in sync with it. I’m talking very basic, on-the-ground sync here: like writing up a procedure, cleaning the garage or getting the paperwork right. The 99.9% efficiency applies to everything and, human involvement or not, it is achieved already. Nature, without man, is the perfect example.

Morris: What are the most significant errors of omission that humans commit and what is their relevance to the WTS methodology?

Carpenter: That’s easy: Our refusal to take the time to work on the systems of our lives that create the results of our lives. Instead, we chose to be fire killers. We get lazy not realizing that the time we spend fixing the bad results of our lives would be better spent straightening out the systems that are causing the bad results in the first place. Do this as a full time job and pretty soon there are no more bad results and, instead, lots of freedom and money. Yes, it’s that simple.

Morris: Why is it so difficult to communicate effectively in this so-called “Age of Information”?

Carpenter: Everybody is talking and no one is listening. Think of Twitter where it’s some kind of heroic feat to have 15,000 followers. How can 15,000 people be listened to? Really, it’s a bit insane. We live in a hyped up world with too much trivial information that is entertaining. We spend our time on the non-important. I could write another book on this subject alone but suffice it to say that it doesn’t take much to get ahead once one gets organized and begins to expend energy in the areas of life that matter. The competition, nine times out of ten, is distracted and weak.

Morris: To what do the acronyms BPT and MPT refer and why are they important?

Carpenter: Biological Prime Time and Mechanical Prime Time. BPT has to do with doing work’s “heavy-lifting” when one’s mind and body are at peak performance during the course of a day. For me, as an example, it’s from 5am to 11am or so. MPT is being sure to work on the things that contribute to reaching specific goals. If one spends BPT performing non-MPT work (most people), it will result in a life of bare subsistence, or worse.  I more comprehensively explain BPT and MPT in the book.

Morris: OK, let’s say that I scrupulously follow the WTS methodology and reach a point at which all systems are synchronized and functioning efficiently. How to sustain that?

Carpenter: Maintenance…constant maintenance. Once all the systems are all up and running they need to be constantly tweaked and double-checked for changes in the environment. This is easy and quite satisfying, and can be automated/delegated.

Morris: You discuss William of Ockham and his Razor in Appendix A (Pages 208-214). For those who have not as yet read Work the System, please explain their relevance to the WTS mindset and methodology.

Carpenter: It’s a simple thing! Ockham is alleged to have said “the simplest solution is invariably the correct solution.” I can’t add much to that because it says it all! But, note, the ultimate simplification in one’s life is to get rid of burdensome systems that don’t add value. Dumping trash is the ultimate simple act.

Morris: What question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Carpenter: Good job with the questions, Bob. This was quite thorough. I suppose a question might be this: How has my life changed since writing the book two years ago? The answer is that my life hasn’t changed, really, except the wealth and freedom continue to accumulate. I love my wife and kids/grandkids more than ever. I’m healthy. Life is good. It’s exactly the way I want it.

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I urge you to check out all of Carpenter’s resources by clicking here.

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