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Color Codes Should Be Used Only For Sorting Materials

At this time of the year – the anniversary of my coming to the States — I am particularly reflective of my immigrant experience, an exercise that’s made more poignant lately. I came to the States decades ago to join my family, to finish my undergraduate degree, and to begin my journey of becoming a “Chinese-American.“ But I always feel more like a citizen of the world. And ironically, the root for the feeling lies in the conflict between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese-Chinese in the little island of Taiwan.

I embody that turmoil because my father was a Taiwanese and my mother was a mainland Chinese. This difference was the seed of a horrendous and convoluted family saga, which taught me the art of occupying two, sometimes diametrically, different worlds simultaneously. Later, the need to straddle separate identity worlds has included not just Chinese-American but also business-academician, qualitative-quantitative methodologist, social scientist-artist, introvert-extrovert, etc. These all have contributed to my spurning the simplistic either-or worldview.

From childhood on, I have been keen on holding multiple perspectives, understanding opposing sides. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own strong opinions or affiliations, but I have always thought that our loyalty to only our villages, provinces, states, schools, (extended) family tribes, or nations can become a huge stumbling block to reaching out, understanding “the others,” or working with differences. Of course, there have been many lessons, missteps, blunders, in my development and I expect them to continue for the rest of my life.

taking fly

I go into this long-winded introduction to relate the following story.

During my first semester at the Western Michigan University – two months after immigrating to this country — I was lucky to encounter a sympathetic professor in my communication course. He often invited me to his office to “just talk.” It was much later that I realized that those “talks” were probably akin to psychoanalytical sessions. He was helpful; those hours were a great outlet for my confusion, frustration, uncertainties, and connections. But one day, he put me on the spot: He asked me to share with the class my experience as an immigrant. I don’t remember much of what I said, but probably indicated a degree of loneliness, despite living with one of my sisters and her roommates (they were her friends but were friendly to me).

Before my soliloquy, a classmate had approached me once to invite me to join him at a club where he played jazz piano. I was confronted with two obstacles, one being my unfamiliarity with jazz at that time, but greater was his being an African-American. In addition, at that point in my life, I had hardly dated, and had little knowledge about black Americans (unless you count TV and movies). I had no clue of how to handle his invitation. I only thought, “Oh, boy, how would my family react to my hanging out with a black guy?” So I demurred and turned down his invite. After my small outpouring in the class, the very same friendly African-American young man came to me, and mildly accused me of dishonesty; after all, he had extended his gesture of friendliness and I had turned him down. Again, I don’t remember my response. I only remember my deep mortification afterwards, and shame even years later. It simply didn’t matter whether my excuses were valid; I screwed up.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Here is an aspect of cross-cultural and inter-racial conflict that Asians rarely openly admit. A great many Asians, mostly older generation, have a profound bias against black Americans. I use “black Americans” because that’s how we still refer them in Chinese. And over the decades, I have often overheard Chinese use a Chinese epitaph to describe this population, or witnessed not-all-that-subtle disdainful expressions on their faces toward the few black people on the streets, in the malls, or other public domains. The fact that younger generations (particularly those born in the States), from Gen Y forward, have forsworn such racist attitude brings me only small comfort. The fact that I have since made quite a few close friends with African-Americans, men and women, still doesn’t mitigate my shame every time I remember that exchange at WMU.

After one year at WMU, I transferred to Michigan State University. Being on my own opened my eyes even more.

Fast forward. At one Academy of Management (AOM) annual meeting in the mid- 90s, where I attended a special symposium on diversity, the focus was the usual black-and-white interactions and conflicts. During a momentary lull – which was rare, being the only Asian in the room I piped up: “From my perspective, at least the black and white populations are talking with each other. The conversations may be unpleasant and downright hostile at times, but there are interactions. I don’t ever encounter such discussions between Asians and African-Americans.” The room went very quiet for a second or two. Then the chair of the symposium, my dear professor-friend at Wharton, semi-teased, “As usual, Elena’s wisdom brings us a different perspective.” I wanted to dig a hole and drop myself in it, but I was heartened to note that the tone of the conversation after that moment became more relaxed and more constructively animated.

That moment at the AOM reminded me of “The Functions of Social Conflict,” by Lewis Coser. When two groups are in deep conflicts, sometimes, introducing a superoridnate goal toward which both groups can find common ground to work would temporarily unite the groups. Or, the presence of a third group can often divert the two original groups’ tensions so that they may see possibilities for meaningful interactions.

santa ana b&w

The recent racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment in this country as well as in Europe have saddened me profoundly. I don’t know how I would have coped if I had been in the States during WWII (you know, all Asians look alike, even though Japanese were the mortal enemies of Chinese in that war). I sometimes wonder if we, the collective, will ever learn. So, at times like this, I tend to be more inward-looking than usual and hope in my small ways to offer different perspectives.

To my old classmate at WMU: I am so sorry to have misread your kind intention and rejected your friendly gesture. And I thank you for being honest and thereby teaching me a valuable lesson.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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NUMMI – When The Giant Stumbles…

It hurts everyone in its path.

Is it possible that all those working at NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated) were happy team players? Of course not, that’d be against reality, and so not American. However, since the dissenters were few, there was little chance of upsetting production. Ultimately, the question was: If NUMMI was such a success, wouldn’t GM want the rest of the company’s plants, or at least the majority of them, to learn (not copy) from it?

As I have explained before, changes are personal. When people perceive changes as threats to their skills or power, they resist.

aerialshot

During the initial implementation of NUMMI, GM set up a team of 16 “rising stars” to help with NUMMI. After NUMMI was launched, these 16 “commandos” were basically sitting idle. No one at HQ contacted them for valuable information. After two years, one of them quit, and another one went to GM Brazil to help set up the plant there and created some success, a la NUMMI.

In the meantime, a GM plant in Van Nuys, manufacturing the Camero and Firebird, was as infamous for both defective products and antagonistic attitudes between labor and management as the Fremont plant. The Van Nuys plant was 400 miles south of NUMMI and was facing the possibility of closing, just like Fremont plant did. All the parallels between the two plants should have served as a warning. The Van Nuys plant manager came to NUMMI for lessons; he even got the regional UAW boss, Bruce Lee, to go to Van Nuys to help train the staff. Both management and labor resisted every step of the way. They didn’t want to give up their comfort; they saw the Toyota ways as threatening in three aspects: 1. Workforce reduction, 2. Blurring the boundary between management and labor, 3. Loss of seniority. The trajectory of these aspects was the erosion of trust. (As if there was abundant trust at that point!)

The Van Nuys plant manager shut down the plant for two weeks for some serious training on product improvement and teamwork. However, there were no trips to Japan, no tearful farewells over sushi, and no immediate threat of job losses. During the training, people just went through the motions, probably not unlike most training programs most of us go through, following a 12-step manual, grumbling privately. The 2-week disruption brought only greater skepticism and deeper distrust. In addition, all the suppliers in the system were part of the dysfunctional dynamics. So, in 1992, GM shut down the plant, resulting in a much larger workforce reduction.

Similarly, when managers from the rest of GM visited NUMMI, they often ended up not just criticizing but also attacking the system. They felt threatened…why didn’t they think of this first? Instead of seeing a good example, they were “shown” their inadequacy and were put on the defensive. Remember, change is very personal.

The Van Nuys plant manager had an Aha moment. He said, “You know, they [the Japanese] never prohibited us from walking through the plant, understanding, even asking questions of some of their key people. I’ve often puzzled over that– why they did that. And I think they recognized, we were asking all the wrong questions. We didn’t understand this bigger picture thing.

“All of our questions were focused on the floor, the assembly plant, what’s happening on the line. That’s not the real issue. The issue is, how do you support that system with all the other functions that have to take place in the organization?”

The above quote illustrates the quintessential failure to distinguish between learning from vs. copying success.

Here is a sad example of an extreme case of copying success. “ So I remember, one of the GM managers was ordered, from a very senior level– came from vice president– to make a GM plant look like NUMMI. And he said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras and take a picture of every square inch. And whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’” Wow! Just “Wow!”

How do you copy attitude? How do you copy relationships and trust? How do you copy wisdom? How do you copy the ability to listen and think critically? And is the ability to listen and think critically of any value without encouraging its use? And on and on. I am not suggesting that the Japanese have all these qualities and Americans don’t; I do contend that the Japanese possessed those not-easily-quantifiable assets in the 90s, more learned than copied, relative to their American counterparts in the auto industry.

Of course, as GM ate more humble pie, they eventually learned. And as Toyota grew bigger, they have had, in recent years, their shares of mishaps and colossal mistakes. It never fails that as soon as one thinks of oneself as exceptional and the best, one begins to decline. This is true for individuals, groups, organizations, and nations. In the case of Toyota, the mantra of “continuous improvement” might sound as if they are open-minded about learning; in reality, that assumption ignores the lessons from the third law of thermodynamics. To reach that elusive and impossible goal of 100% perfection, an entity needs to commit all its resources and energy to the futility of “improving” that very last bit of imperfection. Along the way, the organization chokes off all innovation and creativity.

As for GM, eventually, it began to learn, especially as more and more managers rotated through on-the-job-training at NUMMI; the slow – because giants don’t walk fast — but steady accumulation of learning among these managers did tip the scale. And GM began to improve its quality. Ironically, at the time of GM’s bankruptcy, it might have achieved its highest quality production in recent decades, albeit a little late.

airealshot3

Are we ever likely to learn from NUMMI? A few may, but most won’t…not necessarily for lack of smarts, willingness, or resources. Most organizations will not learn “properly” because such learning fundamentally requires top management to face facts, or, to truly grasp what the lower levels of managers and other employees know all too well. It also demands that employees, of all levels, have a deep sense of humility, knowing that they don’t always know everything. It’s complicated to change even a small group, let alone a giant organization. “Too big to fail?” Until it fails…then everyone suffers.

In the end, NUMMI closed in 2010. After GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, it pulled out of the JV, leaving Toyota running the plant alone. NUMMI was Toyota’s only unionized plant in the States. Eventually, Toyota decided to close NUMMI. The NUMMI site was bought by Tesla for a fraction of its book value.

I don’t mean to end on a downer note, but let’s be realistic. Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

NUMMI – The Giant Moved One Foot Forward

In the Joint Venture (JV) negotiation between GM and Toyota for the NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated, link below), the labor union had to concede many of their usual taken-for-granted rights, such as seniority. Recalling the bad-to-worse workforce at the Fremont site, it would be insane for GM to rehire that same lot after closing down the plant. Yet, the UAW western region boss, Bruce Lee, felt compelled to give the same crew another chance because he believed that their poor behavior was the product of the system. However, before Lee got the green light to do so, understandably, labor saw him as someone who betrayed their trust.

Now Bruce Lee wasn’t naïve or a wide-eye idealist. He fully acknowledged the behavioral problems at the old Fremont site. He said, “It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States. And it was a reputation that was well earned. Everything was a fight. They spent more time on grievances and on things like that than they did on producing cars. They had strikes all the time. It was just chaos constantly.” Still, his intuition and his understanding of the system convinced him to re-engage the same old hands. GM wouldn’t sanction doing so, but the Toyota executives believed that their system would change the workers. Of course, when Lee brought the proposal to the workers, they hated it, not least because the loss of seniority but everything was going to be different. They even vented their frustration and anger by burning a Lee effigy.

In the end, Bruce Lee held the aces: He had the jobs that the workers needed and with Toyota’s blessing he had hiring authority.

My small step toward loosening my control in painting.

My small step toward loosening my control in painting.

Being rehired was certainly a strong incentive for people to modify their behavior; however, a lot more was needed to sustain their willingness to transform. In retrospect, Toyota’s training groups of workers for two-week stretches in Japan was money well spent.

For the former Fremont workers, most of whom hadn’t travelled outside of California or the country, the trip to Japan was almost unnerving. Being in a totally different environment, not just the national culture but also the work culture, probably contributed dramatically to how these Americans reframed their own work attitude and changed their behavior. Not only did they learn that stopping the assembly line for trouble-shooting was encouraged, they were astounded to find themselves being asked to contribute ideas. Their opinions mattered; they possessed knowledge of how to get things done and done right. So, yes, “even” among assembly line workers, when invested with purpose, mastery, and autonomy, they could thrive and become more productive.

One related, “I can’t remember anytime in my working life where anybody asked for my ideas to solve the problem. And they literally want to know, and when I tell them, they listen, and then suddenly, they disappear and somebody comes back with the tool that I just described– it’s built– and they say, ‘Try this.’”

Underneath the excitement of new attitude and new workflow, however, lurked a sense of embarrassment. Weren’t Americans supposed to be the best? Weren’t they the leaders in this industry? Now the “little” Japanese were showing them not only how to do things differently, but even do it better? A little hurt pride sometimes can be a good boost…especially when you are given a second chance.

After two weeks of relearning and retooling, the workers from both sides had an emotional farewell dinner over sushi. Sushi! This was still in the early 80s when Americans were only beginning to appreciate this exotic cuisine. The Americans felt confident in their “new clothes.” When all of the newly trained workers returned and restarted the Fremont assembly line, they gave it their all. In December 1984, the first Chevy Nova came off the line and everyone was proud of the product. It took less than one year to establish (or, reestablish?) GM Chevy’s reputation.

Bruce Lee: “Oh, I was so proud of them, you can’t even believe. The fact that they did it didn’t surprise me that much, but how quickly they did it did. It was amazing. Here was these same people, who before– I mean, hell, they’d go out of their way to make life miserable for General Motors particularly. And, you know, they were old, they were fat. Because that was not a young workforce that we brought in there.”

By industry’s standards, such as number of defects per 100 vehicles, Fremont’s record was the best in the country. It was the same as for Toyota’s Corollas. In addition, the cost saving for GM was astounding. They had figured it’d take additional resources, probably about +50%, under the old management to get anywhere near the new record.

The title for this, "This Way Home."

The title for this, “This Way Home.”

Before NUMMI, the workers would keep their association with Fremont hidden, fearing confrontations with customers who had problems with the old vehicles. After NUMMI, one worker went around posting index cards on Novas parked on the street, with his name and address, asking for feedback. Largely positive.

So, you’d think the rest of GM plants would and should learn from NUMMI? The recent GM bankruptcy signaled to us that they didn’t. Changing a lumbering giant’s gait is just too hard. Stay tuned. Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

NUMMI – A Giant’s Atrophy

The higher rank one occupies, the harder it is to change for better/climbing higher. When you become # 1 — by whatever measurement — what’s next? This query is useful for individuals as well as organizations, but in this space, my focus will be on organizations – big, powerful, lumbering organizations.

I didn’t learn about the NUMMI case till a few months ago (from “This American Life”), but immediately recognized several management lessons. NUMMI stands for New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated; it was a joint venture (JV) between GM and Toyota, back in the early 80s. NUMMI opened in 1984 and closed in 2010. It was a success story as well as a sad failure story.whynot

Before NUMMI, the GM manufacturing plant at Fremont, California, was replete with problems, from negative attitudes to high percentages of rejected cars. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and gambling were prevalent daily activities, right on the site. The animosity between labor and management was so deep that assembly line workers’ way of fighting management was to sabotage the cars at the line, leaving parts or Coke bottles inside the doors or omitting a few screws, etc. Both sides dug in in their power struggles; it’s as if they were living in their own self-created prisons. The dynamics exactly maps to the topmiddlebottom that I had previously described in detail. Absenteeism was rampant. On any given day, one out of five workers just didn’t show up. Mondays were the worst; there were times management couldn’t start the line.

GM had been losing market share for quite some time by then, especially in the small car market, and Japanese cars had been invading GM’s territory with quality cars. So, while top management in GM could never admit that the Japanese were turning out better cars – after all, GM had been number one in the world market for so long – they recognized that they had to do something. Toyota wanted to make further inroads in the US market, as well, to test Toyota management systems with American workers, and GM thought it might as well find out what all the fuss was about Toyota cars. In their joint venture, Toyota promised that GM would know everything about how Toyota made their cars.

Since Fremont Plant was “the worst of the bad mediocre plants in GM,” GM finally did its housecleaning. In 1982, GM laid off most of the workers and closed the plant. Next year, though, GM was in the planning phase with Toyota to reopen the plant under the JV.

Of course, not everyone in the system behaved selfishly; there were always a few diamonds in the rough. In his college days, Bruce Lee was the running back from the University of Arkansas, and had been the former UAW (United Auto Workers) Fremont chief. GM retained Lee to select a new crew for the JV. It surprised GM top management that Lee insisted on hiring back the same group of people. His reasoning? “…because I believed that it was the system that made it bad, not the people.” In the end, 85% of the new JV staff came from the old hands.

valle 2In 1984, Toyota started bringing the “old” Fremont people to Japan for training, groups of 30 at a time. The first group of Americans who went to Japan was apprehensive: How were they going to be received? Their arrival at the airport was a big news item, and the Japanese workers welcomed the Americans with gifts and smiles. There was one immediate noticeable difference: On average, the Americans were nine years older than the Japanese. Their age difference might or might not account for productivity difference; however, their physical size definitely did. Americans, being bigger than their Japanese counterparts, took an extra second or two to get in and out of the car while working on it. This added up to about 10-15% less productivity. Still, American workers could overcome this disadvantage…if they knew how.

The key in the how was in the “teamwork.” Well, there is teamwork, and there is teamwork. At the old Fremont, the team was huge, and the bosses got to dictate. At the Toyota plant, the team was of five or six people, and they would help each other, trouble-shoot together, and even stop the assembly line to correct mistakes or glitches. And all these were alien concepts to the Americans.

“Under the Toyota system, everyone’s expected to be looking for ways to improve the production process all the time, to make the workers’ job easier and more efficient, to shave extra steps and extra seconds off each worker’s job. To spot defects in the cars and the causes of those defects. This is the Japanese concept of kaizen, continuous improvement. When a worker makes a suggestion that saves money, he gets a bonus of a few hundred dollars or so.” Given my critique of “continuous improvement,” I will get into this potential problem in following posts.

At the GM plants, the cardinal rule was: You NEVER stop the line. Bruce Lee said, “You saw a problem, you stopped that line, you were fired.” Problems piled up. Even without overt sabotage, mounting numbers of rejected cars would be parked in the special lot for repairs at later times.

A veteran GM manager explained the rationale: “Because the theory was, they’ll stop it all the time. They don’t want to work, you know? They want to sit and play cards or whatever. That was a free break for them if the line stopped, so you wouldn’t give them the ability to stop the line.” This is quintessential Deficit Thinking (link). The foundation of this particular strand of thinking is one of the “bad management theories” I critiqued in my very first article.

In a way, Ford started the quantity over quality production. However, when the car was such a novelty and people weren’t terribly familiar with operating this new toy, they were willing to deal with constantly tinkering with the machine. That was way back, no longer the prevailing attitude in the 80s.

So at the Toyota plant, the Americans had to turn what they used to know and how they used to work upside down. As one American eventually learned, “Fix it now so you don’t have to go through all this stuff. That’s when it dawned on me that we can do it. One bolt. One bolt changed my attitude.” This testimony came from someone who used to pack his thermos with vodka back at GM Fremont.

tall trees

The newly trained American workers brought back new and shiny principles to the old Fremont environment and began the 2+ decades of quality production for GM…till 2010. The saga continues in the next week’s space in which I will explain how the 85% of the former workers were rehired…certainly not without protests and struggles. Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Buy, Buy, Buy…Now, Now, Now

Do consumers help shape the work environment? In some ways, of course; yet, most of us as consumers feel pretty helpless about getting quality service most of the time. In that light, Amazon’s success, at least as of now, could not have been possible were it not for its ferocious customer-focus operations. So, consumers definitely have helped determine the working conditions at Amazon. The evolution of their customer services has been groundbreaking for sure, and as a consumer, I have been part of their equation. Will I continue my patronage after learning about their inner working conditions? Let me brood over that question.

Among the close-to 6,000 comments to the New York Time’s article on Amazon’s working environment, there were many who expressed outrage and immediately cancelled their “prime membership” with Amazon. Yet, I suspect the cancellation has not created even a ripple in Amazon’s sales bucket. That doesn’t mean that consumers should stop protesting or expressing their concerns and criticism of workplace conditions. However, as I have mentioned previously, there are plenty of other organizations and professions where grueling working conditions are the norm, whether employer- or self-imposed. How shall we consumers react to those other places and professionals?

Let’s look at the airline industry…need I say more?  In this case, it is the customers who have been loudly complaining about the ways we have been treated, from the headache-inducing contortioned act of figuring out how to cash in on the “loyalty” point system, enduring fees slapped on everything, to surviving the reduced-size carry-on… Would any of us give up flying? Can we? This is but one small area where “consumer power” is a joke.

blue bird

So, back to Amazon. In 2011, a series of reports about a warehouse in eastern Pennsylvania highlighted yet a different kind of grueling working conditions. Amazon warehouse workers at this location labored in temperatures of 100 degrees and above in the summer, with paramedics standing by in ambulances parked outside to treat workers who fainted, or to rush them to ER. After the exposé, Amazon installed air conditioning. Later, the joke on the street: Given that Amazon will eventually deploy robots to do the sorting and packing, and those robots will need A/C environment… If we consumers didn’t find that story appalling enough to cancel our business with Amazon, why would the company think that the latest brouhaha, generated by a NYTimes article, would lead to any significant downturn in its business volume? To me, the more interesting question is why we seem to be more exercised over the white collar working conditions than the 2011 warehouse story.

Let me be clear. I am not defending Amazon’s operations. The intensely competitive condition is not unique to Amazon. That doesn’t justify any of these types of operations in any professional field. But, what-can-we-do? Apple’s fans haven’t modified their enthusiastic purchasing power even after stories about their Chinese manufacturers’ horrible (and abusive) working conditions. Google hasn’t suffered because it has given the government massive amounts of data for surveillance purpose. Walmart’s business hasn’t been damaged despite myriad criticism from all corners of society. As I have mentioned before, consumer power in the globalized economy is very diffused. I can scream at the Verizon rep (I don’t, at least not without giving him/her a warning first and with the disclaimer that my tone was not directed at the rep), but none of my frustrations and criticism will ever make any dent in Verizon’s operations. But AT&T is even worse. Delta Airlines is on my “do not fly” list. But of course, if the place where I need to go is served only by Delta…sigh. Back to cable and signal carriers: Does anyone have enthusiastic love for any of them? Verizon? Comcast? AT&T?

The only recent episode where consumers actually seemed to have unified their voices concerned “net neutrality” with the FCC last summer. In an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Mr. Oliver’s 20+ minutes monologue on “net neutrality” was a gem; it was informative and energizing…and entertaining. No one can tell if the FCC website crash the following day, after Oliver’s segment, was due to Mr. Oliver’s “plea” for people to take action. Neither could we be certain that President Obama’s taking the consumer side carried much weight. However, FCC’s eventual decision in consumers’ favor was a pleasant surprise, after an almost nail-biting wait.

dahlia

So if Amazon keeps “improving” its delivery time, such as helping a New York customer to get an Elsa doll (based on movie “Frozen”) in 23 minutes, how do you begin to complain about that? Like, “Can you please deliver this doll in 23 hours instead?!” While this example may be about satisfying an upper class customer – and we don’t really know – Amazon’s offers of conveniences and speedy delivery might also provide much needed relief for many harassed parents or singles who work 80+ hours a week, or single parents who work 65 hours a week. However, is this really “innovation?” Please. Rovers on Mars are innovative; speedy delivery, even by a drone someday, is just an extreme outcome of badgering employees into “continuous improvement” and comes with a huge hidden cost.

If I lived in an area where I can have decent accesses to everything I need and desire, I would happily drop my business with Amazon. But I don’t, and so I just have to swallow my dismay and focus on other battles of my choosing…like everyone in this quick-paced world. What’s your priority?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Amazonians, Amabots, Amholes – Working for Amazon.com

It would have been better timing for me to post this workforce-oriented article on the Labor Day weekend, but I wanted to honor my commitment to my family. My attitude might be “old-fashioned” in the fast-paced tech world, and I am pretty sure that I would not survive for even one day working at places like Amazon.com. So I read the New York Times’ exposé on the workings inside Amazon – focused largely on white collar professionals – with mixed feelings.

Big animal with big horns.

Big animal with big horns.

The Times’ article is long, about 6,000 words, but the gist is an age-old issue manifested in the modern tech-savvy world: How to maximize employers’ utilization of employees’ labor or brain power. Decades ago, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, studying time and motion in labor-intensive work tasks, made assembly line work possible, and profitable. In modern service oriented industries, the race is on how to incentivize (I really hate this word, but, ah well…) professional brainiacs.  Amazon.com’s owner, Jeff Bezos, started his enterprise determined to not let the company slip into the typical corporate culture of bureaucracy, regimented rules and processes, or conventional practices of any kind. He intended, I am sure still intends, to instill in Amazon a “perpetual entrepreneurial” spirit. One can hardly argue with his “leadership principles,” such as customer obsession, hire and develop the best, or insist on the highest standards. Would anyone object to these ideas? Further, most people would react with, “Finally!, someone with vision.” However, like all statements de jour of vision and mission, and pledges of ethical behavior, the ultimate test lies in the execution. The New York Times’ article is about how Amazon has executed these “leadership principles.”

The article portrays the Amazon’s white collar environment as a high-octane, fiercely consumer-oriented, constantly striving for excellence, in which colleagues could be supportive, demanding, competitive, or back-stabbing. Nothing new, just magnified by 10 at Amazon. For instance, many who have worked at Amazon mentioned colleagues leaving meetings in tears, from the combative, confrontational tone of “critiquing” each other’s ideas. While this may not be universal across Amazon, how widespread should it be? would 10% of the work force – 180,000 employees – be acceptable? 20%? Working 60-80 hours a week is a norm; conference calls on Thanksgiving or other holidays are necessary at times; keeping up with emails while on vacations isn’t a rule but is expected… All true also in many other organizations; however, at Amazon, a person receiving an email at, say 10 PM might get a follow up text if that person doesn’t respond the email within an hour. People who take time off tending sick loved ones, taking care of one’s own chemotherapy and recovery process, or dealing with grief often find themselves being put on “performance improvement plan.” In other words, your time off is on you and will reflect against your career progress. Again, this isn’t unique to Amazon, just bigger per the company’s Amazonian size. As one former employee said, “When you are not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.” (NYTimes report)

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

Not surprisingly, many young people, especially singles with fewer commitments outside of work, thrive in Amazon’s work environment. Many also see their “short” stint – however one defines it — at Amazon as a stepping stone for better career opportunities elsewhere. And some leave the company feeling drained and needing a lengthy period to recover. Regardless of how the employees, former or current, handle the work environment, one thing seems clear; their work habit sticks with them, for better or for worse. For those who thrive on the intensity, they continue their “pursuit of higher performance” wherever they go, and thereby make themselves attractive to the next employer. Others who leave the company with a bad taste, may nevertheless appreciate the Amazon discipline. It’s not that the latter group doesn’t care for excellence, they just prefer excellence as manifest in a kinder spirit of their own definition and choosing.

Ultimately, my major question is: Would “perpetual start-up spirit” within one entity eventually morph into its own conventional form and choke off the very spirit it has tried to engender? I don’t know the answer…and, not knowing the answer would be another objectionable response at Amazon. Truly, I wouldn’t survive for even half of a day.

In the next post, I will summarize some reactions to this article…and of course add my own nickel’s worth. Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

 

Note: “Amazonians” and “Amabots” are used internally by people working in Amazon, but “Amholes” are used by some outsiders.

“Time” Is Real & Measurable…yet time is also very subjective

Most of the time, the idea of “time” resides in our perception. “You have too much time on your hands,” or, “I don’t have enough time to…” Every minute or hour is exactly the same quantity as the one before and the one after. Yet, try to tell that to a harassed father or a Fortune 500 VP (who could be a mom with 2 toddlers). Of course, everyone knows that stress, anxiety, and sense of time (or the lack of it) are intimately related. We don’t need more social research to tell us that, but we sure can use more social studies to tell our bosses and their bosses. On the fifth hand, who has the time to read about this, or listen to others’ “whining?” Willingly, or unwillingly, as a society, we collective play into “wearing exhaustion as a status symbol.

I’ve said it before, “Stress is both subjective and objective.”  So I am glad that research has born out this notion. Studies show that when people are asked to state just two goals, they feel less stressed than those who are asked to state two conflicting goals in their lives. The same researchers followed up with actual measurement of people’s anxiety levels (self-diagnosed answers to survey questions). Not surprisingly, many scholars have linked today’s myriad of technologies to our stress level.

ephemeral beauty

ephemeral beauty

Time is fluid; time is porous. Nowadays, as the boundary between work and play gets murkier, the feeling of “not enough time” gets stronger. Even though on average (remember, it may not apply to you as an individual) Americans have worked less hours over the decades, people feel more stressed than ever. One of the reasons is the blurred work-play boundary. Of course, there are other reasons. Since the 2008 recession, many white-collar professionals have had to work extra hours and take on more responsibilities, all without additional pay; this would not be reflected in the statistics. Others have had to take on more than one job to sustain themselves, but this population might not be the majority, therefore only minimally impacting the statistics.

However, time may not be the major resource for which we feel the greatest need. As technologies encroach upon our lives, they compete for our attention span, a terribly important resource that we often take for granted. Would we know when that “take for granted” thing is gone? When so many items in our environment signal their demand our attention, we forget that we have only a limited amount of that resource. The link I provide for the “attention” issue is excellent in drawing our attention to the issue of our public space, billboards, buses, airports, train stations…all occupied by advertisements or TVs, multiple visual and audio assaults. Silence seems to be a scarce and expensive commodity these days. By paying for the “privilege” you can get into the semiprivate, quiet lounge at the airport. Mathew Crawford in “The Cost of Paying Attention,” says it well, “Silence makes it possible to think.” (Italics mine)

If we can turn off the noises around us, we might be able to hear ourselves better. In moments of silence, we often feel that time is slowing down; we can breathe better and see our goals clearer. The “time, conflicting goals and stress” researchers offer at least two methods to counter stressful feelings: 1. Practice breathing slowly, especially in times of stress, and 2. Reframe your goals. Instead of making goals “conflicting,” make them “exciting” or “challenging.” Some people might regard such tactics childish and pathetic…I challenge them with, “What harm would it do if you just try it?”

As it has been proven that we can adopt a body posture to give us a greater sense of power, we certainly can practice deep and rhythmic breathing to slow down time, or reduce our stress and anxiety. Or, try to reframe the situation in a positive light. Most of the time, our mind leads actions, but sometimes, we need to act first before learning from our actions. Try it, it may be a fairly easy habit to adopt. Yes?

aging beauty

aging beauty

As I was finishing my draft of this article, I encountered one of the most heartbreaking and heartwarming essays about time. A young neurosurgeon wrote about his reflection of time. At age 37, he was facing his impending death – time moved too fast — while caring for and loving his infant daughter who couldn’t yet know about time. In reading his essay, time stopped for me. I absorbed his words, I listened to his voice; while I felt saddened by his fate, I also felt the warmth of his wisdom and love.

Take your time; take some time to do what you love. Till next week,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com