Is Amazon a brutal place to work? Do you have a reason to care?

To answer the first question you’ll have to do some googling, after which you’ll have to decide which sources you find more and less credible.

I don’t know if its warehouse workers pee in bottles to keep their productivity statistics in line with what is required or not. I also don’t know how accurate recent reports about its independent delivery contractors’ allegedly unsafe driving practices and working conditions are.

What I’m pretty sure of: An organization as big as Amazon is neither entirely innocent nor thoroughly guilty of allegations like these. If Jeff Bezos set out to make Amazon the worst place in the world to work he’d have almost as hard a time achieving this nefarious goal as he’d have if he wants Amazon to be the best.

Not that he’s off the hook. Not at all. Executives are, as has been pointed out in this space more than once, responsible for the business culture they preside over because how they behave in different circumstances has more impact than any other factor.

Which leads to the conclusion I’m least certain of, which is also the one I’m most confident of, and is the most important to you:

To the extent Amazon’s reported awfulness is real, it’s an unintended, or perhaps not-cared-about consequence of something quite positive that, as with so many other positive somethings, becomes quite negative when pushed beyond its limits.

Amazon is very likely the most efficient retailer in history — efficient in terms of:

  • Cycle time: How long customers wait for their merchandise after placing their orders.
  • Quality: The percentage of delivered merchandise that matches what customers ordered.
  • Marginal cost: The average incremental cost of one more purchased and delivered item.

If you’re Amazon or anyone else, you don’t become this good at what you do in one big implementation (and I’m going to resist the temptation to segue into a waterfall-vs-agile karaoke number).

You become this good in large part by establishing a culture of continuous improvement.

A culture of continuous improvement is a Good Thing (to coin a phrase). It means never being satisfied with how good you already are, and never assuming there’s no way to become better.

It’s a good thing right up until the organization crashes into the point of diminishing returns.

I first wrote about this phenomenon fifteen years ago (“Do you deliver?KJR, 6/24/2004). What I said at the time was, Squeeze a wet sponge and water will come out. Squeeze it again, harder, and you’ll get more water. Try to dry a sponge this way and you’ll get pretty frustrated. No matter how hard you squeeze, it will still end up damp. You can’t get all the water out, but you can damage the sponge.

Squeeze a flabby organization and cost will come out. Squeeze it again and you’ll find more efficiencies. No matter how hard and how often you squeeze, you’ll always see more waste. But like the sponge, when you squeeze an organization too hard you damage it.

So … never assuming you can’t get better is good. But inferring that doing more of what made you better will make you even better … that’s a false and dangerous inference.

A very long time ago, Byte magazine reported on a newly announced file compression package. Its developers claimed it was loss-less. They also claimed you could run a compressed file through it as many times as you liked, and each time you did it would come out smaller than the last time.

Think of continuous improvement programs as process compression algorithms and you’ll see the point: Trying to squeeze additional inefficiencies out of a process by squeezing harder is like trying to compress an already-compressed file by applying the same compression algorithm to it that you’ve already applied.

Dispensing with the dueling metaphors, what’s a beleaguered manager to do?

In a word, think.

In a few more words: To make a process better, take the time to:

Decide what “better” means — which of the six dimensions of process optimization you’re going to improve.

Evaluate proposed ways to improve the dimension in question.

Determine the tradeoffs. Unless the process in question is pretty awful, improving one dimension will probably lead to making at least one of the other dimensions worse. And even if it doesn’t, it might very well do some other organizational damage that, if not anticipated, would become an avoidable unintended consequence.

Then you’re in a position to mitigate the tradeoffs, because … do you really want to be the one forcing employees to pee in a bottle?

I always liked Mr. Spock.

This was in spite of his profoundly stupid ongoing arguments with Dr. McCoy about the value of emotions in daily life.

[If you’re lost, you never watched Star Trek. I can’t help you. You’ll just have to pick it up from context.]

It’s our emotions that cause us to want. Decisions are about people getting what they want. If Mr. Spock has no emotions he doesn’t want. No wants, no decisions.

And not only people: A flatworm in a T-maze has to decide whether to turn left or right. It does so based on whether, in past trials, it encountered food or electric shocks in one or the other direction. It “wants” food and also wants to not experience another electric shock, and it makes its decision based on those wants, although, as we haven’t yet achieved telepathic rapport with planaria, of necessity we’re using “want” fairly loosely.

One could, were one an argumentative sort, counter that we haven’t yet achieved telepathic rapport with each other, either. We each might know what we want, and, for that matter, that we want, but we can only infer the same about each other.

When Scott Lee and I wrote The Cognitive Enterprise we wrestled with the challenge of building organizations that act with purpose — that make similar or complementary sorts of decisions no matter where in the organization each decision is made.

Or, avoiding the passive voice, no matter who in the organization makes each decision.

One of the challenges: Comparing humans to planarians, while we’re undoubtedly more sophisticated than flatworms in understanding what we want, we’re alike in the fundamentals, like wanting food when we’re hungry and wanting to avoid pain when something might hurt.

Organizations? Not so much, and in fact the more we stare at an organization the more our heads hurt trying to infer what “want” might mean.

The naïve among us might imagine that, narrowing our focus to for-profit businesses, what they want is more profits.

That view lasts only as long as it takes to recognize that business decisions are made by individuals and committees.

Imagine you’re one of those individuals. Now imagine you’re in the organizational equivalent of a T-maze. Turn left and the business makes more profits, but, it does so in part by defenestrating you. Turn right and profits diminish but you survive the experience and get a bonus.

Multiply by the number of decision-makers and you realize, there’s no reason to think the aggregate of all business decisions will be to increase profits. It will be to maximize the personal survival rates and compensation of those in a position to influence them.

But we’re straying from our focus, which isn’t the nature of the decisions made by an organization. Our focus is on whether an organization can and does “want” the way humans (and flatworms) want.

The answer, I think, is a resounding no. Humans and all other biological decision-makers want in the sense of an emotional need. Emotions are what set the targets for our decisions, which is why Mr. Spock’s emphasis on logic was misplaced: Without emotion, we can’t want anything and neither could he.

Logic is how some people (and most Vulcans) sometimes go about making decisions that get us what we want.

So ignore phrases like “corporate greed” and similarly meaningless formulations. There’s nothing about how an organization is constructed that would let us imagine it experiences anything that corresponds to greed or any other emotion.

The closest counterparts are its governance and its culture.

Its governance is the set of rules, guidelines, and organizational sub-structures … committees and councils … that its board of directors and management establish to encourage consistency in an organization’s decision-making.

Governance starts by assigning the authority to make decisions, typically includes prescriptions for how those authorities are supposed to make them, and somewhere along the way also defines what want means: The organization might want more profits, mission achievement, or the recently demoted increase in shareholder value.

In a cognitive enterprise, as you know if you read the book, culture is the new governance. Culture is how we do things around here. It’s the sum, substance, and consequence of the assumptions — conscious and unconscious — and other mental habits shared throughout the organization.

A cognitive enterprise — one where culture is the primary form of governance — might not want in the human sense.

But it has at least a chance of acting as if it did.