When Even Generic Smile Is Seen As Dishonest And Suspicious

To strangers to American culture, Americans’ smiles can be unnerving. “Is there something on my face?” “Did she know something I missed?” “It’s so inappropriate for him to smile at me.” According to some Russians, for the longest time, American’s smile was a symbol of the evil American capitalism. Non-verbal communication is just as much of a socially constructed phenomenon as verbal communication. Cultural shock is akin to bacteria invading our bodies, annoying, inconvenient, and we just want to find some drugs to zap them away. We rarely see cultural adjustment as a challenge to our emotional well-being.


The second story of the Invisibilia focused on changing one aspect of a national culture, Russian specifically. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Moscow January of 1990, it was a huge deal. Not only the symbol of capitalism invading a former communist country, the Russian employees of McDonald’s continued the Big Mac’s culture of smiles in their greetings and services. However, it was the totality of the “customer service,” a la American/Western/Capitalistic ways, that tested the uninitiated and curious Russians. From “Hi, how are you?” “What can I get for you?” to “Is there anything else?” and “Hope to see you soon,” it was the complete opposite of what Russians usually experienced in their own restaurants where servers were surly, rude, slow, very slow, and sometimes downright nasty.

How did the average Russian customers react to their own fellow countrymens’ Americanized behavior, at least inside McDonald’s? Would they be suspicious of such unwanted friendliness? Not just smiling, but eye contacting and “faked” chumminess? Guess what people of all cultures would prefer? To be treated kindly…with or without smiles. The featured Russian in the radio story, Yuri, considered the question whether Russians going to McDonald’s are for food or emotional culture, and his response was, “I think emotional culture. People – some people liked food – some people were kinda, like, eh, food is OK. But, you know, it’s really a great place to just hang out.” Contrary to American’s perception of the uniformed soulless fast-food corporate culture, Russians saw McDonald’s an “island of light and humanity.” Socially constructed reality!


Such attitudinal change in Yuri and his co-workers took hold of their psyche over time, and some of them began feeling impatient with general Russians’ old ways of taking everything so seriously. In fact, two years after Yuri’s foray into the world of Big Mac, he and his family immigrated into the US, and settled down in Boston. Yuri had a honeymoon period in the States. Then, one day while waiting for bus, a fellow rider struck a conversation with Yuri, and they had a great back-and-forth on some personal stuff. Yuri saw a budding friendship and was delighted. The bus came; his “new friend” boarded after Yuri and sat away from Yuri, like all those talking points had just evaporated into thin air. Yuri concluded, “And I still remember that feeling. I was, like, I thought you were my friend. That’s really strange.”

Of course, you know by now that very few things in social science/social world are absolute. So it is with smiling, it can get carried away in customer service. Many American workers who are on the frontline dealing with customers feel burnt out after a prolonged period of smiling too much, a disguise for suppressed frustration. The forced smile has also created the expectation on the customers’ side to think they are always right and can become wholly unreasonable. So, there is a dark side of “keeping up with the smile!”

I remember vividly my first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1985. The country had barely opened its doors to outsiders. Almost everything was still state operated with zero concept of “customers;” the few mom-and-pop shops were accustomed to not seeing too many happy customers. Everyone seemed dour and impatient. The only friendly people were your relatives, connections with your relatives, or small merchants who’d like to take a little bit of advantage of you if they could. My western style combined with impeccable Chinese often unnerved the strangers, and if I could be quick, I could enjoy a little break of getting what I needed while they were recovering from being caught off guard. My second visit two years later saw dramatic changes across a large swath of the country, and by my last visit in 1991, Shanghai was on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan center. By then, my reaction to seeing the smiling Chinese wait staff was, “They are just being obsequious.” I haven’t been back since and have no idea of how people have changed.

Globalization has upended many carts, such as customer services, labor forces, attitudes toward “strangers,” or cultural habits. My take on of the two stories presented in the Invisibilia episode is this: Top-down changes are achievable in a small group and when the leaders practice what they preach. This was the case of the oil rig, presented in the previous post. The McDonald’s case was initiated from the top HQ down to one Moscow store, but it eventually caught fire as more McDonald’s opened up throughout Russia. More than two decades later, Russians’ smile score was higher than Americans’ in the 2015 “Smiling Report.” Yet, when it comes down to individuals living cross-culturally, such as in Yuri’s case, there is still much internal struggle and negotiation with the external world.


After being in the States for 40+ years, and happy like a fish back in the water, I still occasionally experience a cultural shift and puzzlement. Actually, such a feeling of disquiet occurs to many people when they move from one region to another, e.g. east coast to west coast, or north to south, and vice versa. Sometimes, English-speaking people moving from one country to another English-speaking country, say, US to UK, or UK to Australia, etc. experience even stronger cultural shock precisely because the changes may be subtle and easily taken for granted.

There are no magic medicines or programs to help us overcome the cross-cultural malaise. However, like all emotional issues, we need to take time to understand, really and deeply understand, not just our cultural environment but how we fit in that environment. It’s stop-and-go; it’s constant; it can be tiring and exhilarating; it’s personal, individualistic and collective. And it can be rewarding whenever we “get” it.  Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.


Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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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.


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.


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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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Amazonians, Amabots, Amholes – Working for

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 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.’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.

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

If It Ain’t Broke…

…and Market Basket was not broken by any stretch of imagination. Market Basket is a 71-chain grocery store primarily serving the New England region. In fact, the company is doing better than fine; it’s a billion-dollar enterprise with good profit margin. So, what did the board of directors try to fix? They removed the CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas (affectionately referred to as “ATD” by the employees), in an ouster maneuvered primarily by his archrival cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Seriously, it’s worth paying attention to family dynamics; this has an eerie similarity to the “Vaughan-Bassett” case I used a couple of weeks ago.

I can't get excited about bargains of groceries, but I am fond of Trader Joe's.

I can’t get excited about bargains of groceries, but I am fond of Trader Joe’s.

The board’s formal reasons rehash familiar themes: ATD committed favoritism, made bad business decisions, etc. ATD set aside $46 million for profit sharing with its 25,000 employees during the 2008 financial crisis. Lest we feel sorry for the financial hardship this imposed upon the Demoulas family, according to the Boston Globe (via Washington Post Columnist Harold Meyerson), the family made $500 million during the previous decade.

Externally, Market Basket prides itself on the price advantage it affords its customers and on good customer relationships. As far as brand/image is concerned, it doesn’t suffer at all in the public eye. Internally, the company pays employees well; entry-level employees are paid $12/hour. Under ATD’s leadership, internal promotions have elevated many long-term employees to top management ranks with 6-figure salaries. Employees get bonuses and have their college tuition covered. Many anecdotes portray ATD in the image of “George Bailey” from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He would visit employees’ hospitalized children, attend employees’ weddings, and he preferred walking around in his stores (and talking to people) over sitting in his office. In other words, in today’s business environment, he is an oddball.

Which begs the question, How can doing what everyone else is doing bring about competitive advantage? And its corollary, Why do business leaders perpetually do what everyone else is doing while expecting (and then claiming) an outcome superior to everyone else’s?

Basket of bountiful wildflowers from the nature's abundant rain.

Basket of bountiful wildflowers from the nature’s abundant rain.

It’s not surprising that the employees, including supervisors, have been protesting. The grass-root effort brought more than 5,000 people together, including customers. Their single demand: reinstate ATD to be the CEO.

The two people replacing ATD as the current co-CEO have since fired the supervisors who organized and joined the protests, and threatened to terminate protesting workers. One of these CEOs has a reputation for mergers and acquisitions. This fuels the employees’ fears that the board intends to sell the company (and its soul), eliminate jobs, lower wages, and take away some of the benefits. Of course, behind the employees’ loyalty to ATD is their fear for their own future. But why do we separate these aspects as if they are independent?nature's basket 4

We have a related example, with the difference that the company is not under threat (that we know of). Costco pays its average employees more than $20/hour, offers benefits even to part-timers, and its CEO doesn’t pocket an obscene salary (which was criticized by the Wall Street some years back).

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath wrote in the NYTimes op-ed (that I cited last week), “Costco’s employees generate nearly twice the sales of Sam’s Club employees. Costco has about 5 percent turnover among employees who stay at least a year, and the overall rate is far lower than that of Walmart. In turn, the reduced costs of recruiting and training new employees save Costco several hundred million dollars a year. Between 2003 and 2013, Costco’s stock rose more than 200 percent, compared with about 50 percent for Walmart’s. What will prompt more companies to invest more in their employees?”

nature's basket 3Currently, policies focusing on “investing in employees” are rare and as rarities still attract media attention, such as “Paid Leave Encourages Female Employees to Stay.”

Sometimes, it is difficult to not feel a degree of despair. If we are in a position to bring to those around us some measure of workplace satisfaction, what stops us? (The answers are what prompted me to start writing on these issues.)

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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