Amazon started with books, and it was genius: There are tens of thousands of books, so much choice that they can be hard to find. Before Amazon, bookstores were more numerous but inefficient, and since books are small and easy to ship, the business was prime for disruption.
It was brutal. First bookstores tried consolidating into big boxes to gain efficiency. Squeezed between online shopping and Borders or Indigo, the independent bookshop (including one I owned a piece of) was pushed over the edge. It's hard to compete with the Frederick Winslow Taylor of our day, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
In 1880, Taylor would take a stopwatch to everybody’s job and break it down into steps, which would be analyzed to achieve maximum efficiency. “What Taylor did was come in and analyze the smallest pieces of work, tease them apart and break them down into fractions of a minute,” says Robert Kanigel, author of "The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency."
Employees hated it; Labour leaders organized around it. Taylor got fired from Bethlehem Steel because the other managers couldn’t deal with his process. Because unlike Bezos, Taylor didn’t own the company.
Reading the New York Times article, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, I kept seeing Taylor's ghost. Bezos pushes his employees hard, he measures and meters everything. This paragraph is pure Taylorism:
According to early executives and employees, Mr. Bezos was determined almost from the moment he founded Amazon in 1994 to resist the forces he thought sapped businesses over time — bureaucracy, profligate spending, lack of rigor. As the company grew, he wanted to codify his ideas about the workplace, some of them proudly counterintuitive, into instructions simple enough for a new worker to understand, general enough to apply to the nearly limitless number of businesses he wanted to enter and stringent enough to stave off the mediocrity he feared.
Many are outraged by this article. Katie Herzog of Grist is never shopping there again. On Vox, Dylan Matthews suggests that the outrage is misplaced; the ambitious white-collar workers in Seattle have options, but the blue collars in the warehouses — who are collapsing in the heat — do not.
He misses the point. Jeff Bezos would rather not have anyone working in the warehouses at all. It would be much better if the warehouses were run entirely by robots — and that’s where it's going. I have no doubt he would do the same with his office workers too.
Unlike Facebook or Google, Amazon is competing with real retail brick-and-mortar stores. It does it by being relentlessly efficient, cutting costs every way it can. That’s what Taylor proposed 150 years ago and what Bezos is doing now. And many people find it convenient and cost-effective. Taylorism is now an accepted part of life, seen in the way they build hamburgers at McDonald's or cars in Detroit. I wonder if Bezoism isn’t more honest than Silicon Valley companies giving employees massages, laundry service and free food so that they never leave the office. At least in Seattle you have to go home to eat and have a shower occasionally.
I used to love going down to the bookstore every Saturday, finding some new surprise and buying it. I still love the smell of bookstores, and I visit every time I can. I silently cried with happiness when I recently visited an architectural bookstore that still survives in Seattle, home of Amazon.
But when I wanted to review a book for a post earlier this week, I did the one-button thing with Amazon and had it in seconds. The author of the book was able to get it out into the marketplace without the costs and delays in the old-fashioned publishing world that Amazon turned upside down. You lose some and you win some.
But over at Grist, Herzog writes:
Amazon bills itself as the Everything Store, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine a time when literally everything that we purchase comes from this single company. This is terrifying, the kind of monopoly our government would break if our government still did that kind of thing.
I'm not so sure. It’s more likely that something will come along and disrupt Amazon the way it disrupted Walmart, which disrupted Sears. Maybe workers will get tired of being treated this way, as they did in Taylor's day, and organize into unions. Maybe customers will decide to support their local stores and markets instead of ordering online, because they realize that those businesses are critical to building a healthy neighborhood. Maybe people will finally realize that they and their kids need jobs that won’t exist if everything is packed by robots and delivered by drones.
Fredrick Winslow Taylor died at 59, a bitter, angry and broken man after battling with labor leaders, famous authors like Upton Sinclair, and congressional investigations into his management systems. I don’t think Jeff Bezos will suffer the same fate, but he’s only 51. It’s too soon to tell.