Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Another Amazon hit piece

The literati and their various proxies in the mainstream media have decided that Amazon is a ruthless corporate entity, ranking somewhere between a nineteenth-century sweatshop and Nazi Germany on the despicability scale. 

This is because a.) Amazon has had some very public battles with publishing firms (who the literati and wannabe literati generally like), and b.) because certain influential literati voices (Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, Stephen King) have said that Amazon is despicable.

Ergo, Amazon is BAD. 

The mob, remember, thrives on its own slogan-driven emotional energy--not on facts.

Consider this hit piece from Salon.com: Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers

What you'll learn in this essay (once you peel away the layers of emotion and conjecture) is that Amazon runs its distribution centers according to the same principles that companies like Toyota use to run automobile factories. In other words, Amazon pays attention to factors like time usage and worker productivity. 

Toyota, in fact, is mentioned in the article as a model for Amazon's operations:

"Onetto in his lecture describes in detail how Amazon’s present-day scientific managers go about achieving speedup. They observe the line, create a detailed “process map” of its workings, and then return to the line to look for evidence of waste, or Muda, in the language of the Toyota system. They then draw up a new process map, along with a new and faster “time and motion” regime for the employees. Amazon even brings in veterans of lean production from Toyota itself, whom Onetto describes with some relish as “insultants,” not consultants: “They are really not nice. . . . [T]hey’re samurais, the real last samurais, the guys from the Toyota plants.” But as often as not, higher output targets are declared by Amazon management without explanation or warning, and employees who cannot make the cut are fired. At Amazon’s Allentown depot, Mark Zweifel, twenty-two, worked on the receiving line, “unloading inventory boxes, scanning bar codes and loading products into totes.” After working six months at Amazon, he was told, without warning or explanation, that his target rates for packages had doubled from 250 units per hour to 500."

This is no big deal to me. I worked in the automotive and machine tool industries for years, so I'm used to coping with time studies, and various work quotas and targets being assigned to me. 

And yes, sometimes the goalpost gets moved on you. 

In short, that's the way businesses work in the real world.

That is also why Amazon is able to deliver books to consumers at considerable discounts, whereas those much over-romanticized corner bookshops almost always charge the full sticker price and have a smaller selection. It's all about economies-of-scale and efficiency.

Again, anyone who has worked in manufacturing--or elsewhere in the real world--will be unsurprised to learn that Amazon's distribution centers employ such systems.

On the other hand, an ivory-tower academic cum leftwing journalist like Simon Head (the author of the aforementioned hit piece) is probably shocked to learn that Amazon employs industry-standard business principles. 

Publishing firms are also antagonistic toward Amazon. The publishing industry, based in New York, is generally inefficient, as it is run by English literature majors and ex-journalists, people who have no real grasp of cost management, marketing, or economics. 

Amazon.com has established the heinous objective of making books more affordable to the reading public, at a time when books must compete with video games, YouTube, and Netflix. And for this the publishing establishment vilifies Amazon as a heartless, uncouth philistine at the gates.

I'm not implying that Amazon is some sort of a utopian workers' paradise. Newsflash: No company is a utopian workers' paradise. 

Corporations exist to make money. But the upshot of corporations making money is that we get cars, books, cell phones, food, and all the other daily necessities of life. Those things don't come from leftwing bloggers, or from discussion groups in the Humanities Department at Harvard. Nor do they come from the government. (Though the government will be happy to tax them at various stages.)

Toyota doesn't manufacture Priuses to make you happy, to help you save money, or to reduce total gasoline consumption. Toyota manufactures Priuses to make money. But all those other benefits accrue to you and me, nevertheless. That's the way the free market works, as opposed to command economies of the former Warsaw Pact nations, where no one had much of anything at any price.

I worked for a large company for fifteen years, a company that has a global presence and worldwide brand recognition. 

My employer, like Amazon, had a "system" that it used to monitor, motivate, and yes, sometimes weed out employees at all levels. That much is true not only at my former employer, but also at General Electric, Amazon, or any other company on earth that stays in business. 

Remember all the dreamy-eyed, idyllic dotcoms that went belly-up in the early 2000s? There was a reason why they went belly-up. They were inefficient, and/or based on unworkable business models.

Interview employees and ex-employees from any large company, and you're going to find people who love the place, and people who claim that it's hell on earth. And a whole lot of people somewhere in between these two extremes.

The solution for you, as an individual, is to remember that no employer is the only game in town. If your workplace really, truly, is hell on earth (or hell on earth for you) then find another workplace--or start a business of your own. 

Simon Head's politically slanted condemnation of Amazon.com proves only two things: 

First, that Head has no understanding of the way businesses work; and secondly, that Amazon.com is not a good match for every employee. 

Neither one of these should be over-interpreted too much, or regarded as a profound revelation.