Wall Street Journal, The Way Amazon Uses Tech to Squeeze Performance Out of Workers Deserves Its Own Name: Bezosism:
More than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford pioneered systems for speeding up work that we take for granted today. ... Amazon’s 21st-century, algorithm-driven successor to Taylorism and Fordism ... [is] a mix of surveillance, measurement, psychological tricks, targets, incentives, sloganeering, Jeff Bezos ’ trademark hard-charging attitude toward work, and an ever-growing array of clever and often proprietary technologies. Taken as a whole, this system is novel enough in the history of work that it deserves its own name: Bezosism.
At this very moment, Bezosism is diffusing through the world of work, rewriting the source code of the global industrial machine. If it proves as popular and durable as the systems of organization on which it builds—from Fordism to the Toyota Production System—it could be, along with the e-commerce and space companies he built, Mr. Bezos’ most important legacy.
Depending on how the company practicing Bezosism wields its power, this system of technologically supercharged management can be benevolent, or sinister, or both.
Take, for example, Amazon’s well-known metric for evaluating worker performance. ... In Amazon’s fulfillment centers, human productivity is measured by an overall pick or stow rate calculated for each worker at a robot-fed pick-and-stow station.
Imagine the delight of Taylor, who conceived “scientific management” in the early 20th century, or Ford, if they could know, to the millisecond, how long it took every worker to complete a task, every day, in every facility they owned. Imagine what early time-and-motion experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth could have accomplished had they been able to discard their film cameras and replace them with millions of hours of video captured from the digital cameras that watch every station at Amazon’s fulfillment centers. Imagine how much additional just-in-time efficiency in inventory levels, capital allocation, and automated reordering Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda, creators of the Toyota Production System in postwar Japan, would be able to extract from a system that knew the precise moment a worker plucked an item from a shelf and sent it on its way.
That Amazon has all this data—and can manage its workers, evolve its automated systems, and innovate new robots based on it—is one of the reasons it’s the most valuable retailer on earth.
The overall rate at which workers must complete a task in an Amazon warehouse, whether it’s putting items on shelves, taking them off, or putting them in boxes, is calculated based on the aggregate performance of everyone doing that task in a given facility, says an Amazon spokeswoman. This floating rate, Amazon argues, shows that none of its employees is being pushed beyond what’s reasonable, because that rate is something like an average of what everyone in a warehouse is already doing. ... A floating rate also pits all workers at a facility against one another. ...
At Amazon, the “rate” is the purest expression of the company’s goals. Amazon’s leaders and spokespeople like to talk about how automation makes the job of an associate easier. But, until very recently, they seemed unable or unwilling to imagine that the increased demands of that automation on the associates could be grinding them down both physically and psychologically. ...
Current and former Amazon executives described its management philosophy to me as performance-driven and hard-charging, built on the idea that everyone should be pushed to their limits and underperformers should be cut. Amazon clearly wants the world to believe that that is changing. Whether or not those changes will have a meaningful impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of its entry-level associates, whose work lives are ruled by sensors and algorithms, who do the physically demanding labor on which Amazon’s e-commerce empire depends, and for whom the pace and tenor of their work is a function of decisions made by company leaders, as much as technology, remains to be seen.