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?