August 02, 2016

Amazon and Efficiency

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

I recently took a tour of an Amazon Fulfillment Center. It took me two hours to drive there, but I got there on time – you cannot take the tour if you are late. The Center is located in a depressed industrial area, and you see many closed businesses until you turn a corner and see many, many long buildings. Other businesses also have distribution centers in this area, thus they weren’t all owned and staffed by Amazon. Yet.

I signed up for the tour a year and a half ago and received via email with a long list of rules. No hair below the shoulders, no purses or bags, close-toed shoes were required, and no kids under 6. Cellphones were okay to have, but we could not take photos once we entered. One could only reserve a maximum of four spaces at that time. Currently, there are no open dates because they are booked for the next year and a half.

As a sociologist, I found the tour fascinating and quite worthy of analysis. I thought about Karl Marx, Max Weber , Frederick Taylor, and other social theorists who discussed organizations, labor, and efficiency with me on the tour as I saw and learned about how Amazon’s orders are fulfilled.

We gathered in the small lobby, outside the rather impressive key-card entry gates and glass window. The words, “Work Hard Have Fun Make History” are over the entry. There was a hiring event happening in an office to the side of the entry – posters warned about not eating or drinking before drug tests.

Once the entire group was there, we were brought inside to the main entry where a creative sculpture of a person, made with Amazon boxes, welcomed everyone. There were also metal detectors and tables – much like in an airport screening area. These were used for employees.

After an overview and safety briefing, we exited the classroom and headed towards an area with shelving and bins. Lots of shelving, crammed full of seemingly random items, and many color-coded bins here, there, and everywhere, but all neatly stacked.

The building is over a million square feet and could easily fit 28 football fields. It is huge--really huge considering it is not just one level. There are bins on metal conveyor belts circling all around, many going upwards towards the packing areas. We toured only one half of the building, since the other half is identically laid out.

So, how does the fulfillment system at Amazon work? Basically, the “picking” area is on this first floor, with those shelves, filled with items and all barcoded. People who work as “stowers” get the incoming items and stow them onto the shelves, scanning everything: the item, the shelf and divider. Those who work as “pickers” have a device telling them what to pick from what shelf and row. These all get scanned and put into a bin – which is also scanned. Everything is continually scanned – employee badges, items, shelves, bins, and boxes.

The bins then go on a conveyor belt and ride to where they need to be rescanned by a “packer,” put into a box, closed up, labeled, and sent to the right truck to be delivered. The packers are on the second floor and are surrounded by piles of supplies such as all the different sizes of boxes, tape, and rolls of plastic that get filled with air for packing material.

During the summer, when I visited, many of these stations are unused. However, during the holiday season, the entire area is bustling and full of activity. Pallets of boxes and packing materials fill every available space.

The system can tell who is doing what, how quickly, and where everything is at each point in the process. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has designed a system that depends on these metrics and everything that happens is informed by these statistics. While we were not allowed to take photos of the center, this article has pictures just like those I would have taken. (Bezos owns Business Insider, the source of the latter article; in the former article cited, he took issue with the negative portrayal of the Seattle corporate facility. He also owns the Washington Post and is an investor in Google.)

The word “kaizen,” which means “change is for the better,” is mentioned all over the plant. It’s not uncommon for businesses to Constantly challenging workers to improve and work to (and beyond) their capacity, but Amazon does so in a way that can create a lot of stress and pressure.

“Kaizen” reminds me of Frederick Taylor’s ideas about scientific management. Taylor’s efforts to measure a worker’s every movement and then design the most efficient way to work is exactly what Amazon’s fulfillment center does. From how the picker’s shelves are organized to how the packers’ stations are designed, everything is tracked and evaluated for efficiency. The added challenge to put humor and creativity into it is interesting considering the tremendous pressure to be as efficient as possible with time and space. Perhaps that’s an attempt to bring some humanity back into the equation, although the added pressure may make this a difficult challenge.

I was truly impressed at the efficiency with which orders are fulfilled. I imagined that Marx was marveling that what he predicted has come to this type of fruition. This fulfillment center certainly frees up a lot of people from working in heavy labor so that they can do one thing today and another tomorrow. I also imagined Jeremy Rifkin seeing another example of the impact of automation as he discussed in The End of Work.

Amazon’s use of technology is used in every conceivable place that can make the work more efficient and free up human involvement, especially from dangerous forms of work. While they need to lift those boxes and put them into the larger containers for shipping, the conveyor belts take care of most of the moving about. Of course, “freeing up men” means that these processes put a lot of people out of work – replacing people with machines may be more efficient but those people who are no longer working still need something to do since we are still working within a capitalistic society.

I imagined Weber touring the facility and identifying the hallmarks of his ideal type of bureaucracy. The color-coded clothing, the technological organization and layout of the physical dimension, and many rule-guiding behaviors, all clearly identify this as bureaucracy. Oddly enough, Bezos is not a fan of bureaucracy (according to this article among others). How could he organize so efficiently without being bureaucratic?

Near the end of our tour, we got a demonstration of how the packing works – the technology identifies which box size to use for the order, knowing how many items and their sizes. It dispenses enough tape for the packer to close up and seal that box. The packer stands at the station and all supplies are within easy reach, as are the conveyor belts that bring the bins and take the sealed boxes.,

We were each given a box and were told to place items into a larger container that they use for shipping, with instructions to leave no spaces between them. We had to pack the boxes as efficiently as possible so that all boxes could fit. This activity is also timed and tracked; we were given 10 seconds – there were about 25 of us – and we did not make the deadline although our tour leader told us that we were in the top 5% for having no spaces. (He may say that to all the groups.)

This post describes the remarkable efficiency and blending of technology and human labor. A later post will go into the cultural aspects including social norms and social control. How is your workplace (or a workplace in which you have been) organized? How might the ideas of Marx, Weber, or Taylor help explain this organization?

Comments

Its simply amazes me how incredible amazon has become one rat least few years. Full disclaimer I am a Prime Member, and have been for some time. I love that i can get things usually the next day, without having to fight lines and traffic. Unfortunately, this affect the local area. I'm spending less money on gas, and shopping less at locally owner stores. While this is good for me, it does affect the local economy.

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