Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Industrial Environment

I've recently read a lot of critical reviews about Amazon and it's working practices within their big sheds, strangely known as "fulfillment centres". There's an article from the Daily Mirror that's been widely shared regards bad things happening at the Tilbury FC near London. By and large the article is fairly accurate I'd say (having worked for about a month in an FC nearby) but doesn't tell tell the whole story. The problem is that Amazon and a thousand plus other large industrial enterprises are pretty miserable places to work. They have been since the Industrial Revolution so nothing new here. Factories and facilities that push along material, whether it's "box kicking" (Amazon and other logistics centres) or "nut grinding" (shipyard or fabricators) are all harsh, noisy and busy work places that are inherently unpleasant to be in and people are not treated well. They are all tiny cogs, no more and they are fragile. I've worked as both a drone and a manager in these places for around 45 years. It's tough. I know.

The problems are two fold - output v people: the factory owners need to keep costs down and increase productivity so the staff quickly become victims in the pursuit of more output. They can't win. The (younger) staff are also often ill prepared for such a harsh and number driven environment. I've seen first hand the shock on a young person's face when they are given any instruction, told to work "bell to bell" or expected to achieve a target that seems unreasonable or difficult. School and society does not prepare people for the humdrum and awkward reality of earning a living (?) if you are unqualified or unskilled. Life is going to suck hard, you're not an astronaut or a ballet dancer or a grinning face on a magazine cover, you're to be a faceless resource turning out product without question. For many people that's as good as it gets, chasing debt week by week in a grey pattern of survival.

It's an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object type of situation. It's also poorly managed, the team leaders I saw at Amazon were victims as much as the staff, they issued orders or pursed metrics that, when questioned on, they clearly didn't understand nor could they defend and there was a huge gulf between them and the "real" management that they could not cross; the top guys are conveniently  faceless and absent. In other words there was no ownership of either the process or the development of it on the shop floor. All was top down with no room for real or constructive feedback. You can't just change the recipe at KFC or the shelf pattern at Tescos.

I did question the metrics used numerous times during my month at Amazon. Staff would be criticized for errors of 1% or even lower as the warehousing machinery reported back on performance. Basically that means doing things 99% correctly isn't good many things in life do you get a 99% correct score on? Clearly nobody really wants errors or sets out to do a bad job but human beings will always fail to some degree. Modern industry, with it's systems and granular visibility all down the line fails to take this into account. We are all the weakest link or the single point of failure but the plain truth of that is not accepted. In the old days of ledgers, typed work orders and actual bills of material nobody really saw the actual real numbers. I was there and production and productivity was a black art. People worked hard but the truth was invisible, technology has exposed this and we are paying the price. Modern and inexperienced managers don't know quite how to deal with this and the staff, expected to be as drone like as the system is, are caught in a trap of unreasonable expectation and the myth that is "continuous improvement" to the point of breaking. Meanwhile, the customer expects the right thing at the right time and at the right price and on a warm china plate and of course we are all customers...

So maybe be a bit kinder with your Amazon feedback, with the waitress in the pizza restaurant, the delivery driver and his white van or the person correcting the supermarket's robot till. Then get angry with the owners, the faceless inhuman engineers, far away investors, inadequate education systems and the toady governments who allowed mass manipulation and erosion of worker's rights and tax avoidance to continue to prosper and rule the lives of ordinary people. Anyway, where's my package from Amazon?

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