In a recent piece called, “The Deming Paradox: Operationally Rigorous Companies Aren’t Very Nice Places to Work” writer Cedric Chin detailed his quest to find the origin of Amazon’s deep data driven hellscape “productivity system” and summarily blew our mind in the process.
Now, a little blog post isn’t the place to dig into the massive impact that biz philosopher and researcher W. Edwards Deming has had on the workplace, but I’ll give you a taste: Deming’s whole thing as most people understand it is to relentlessly track data from all parts of the process and let the process “speak to you” through said data. Lots of tracking, lots of scoring and grading.
This relentless grading (and did you know the original name for Amazon was going to be “Relentless?” It’s true. Go try Relentless.com) has become the basis of just so many modern businesses focused on trying to win big profits in tight industrys like ecommerce, on-demand rides, and instant delivery. But this exacting thumb of data comes at a “horrible human cost”
What kind of horrible human costs? Well, consider the response that many of my Big Tech friends have had when I explained that I was digging into the source methods for Amazon’s operational rigour: “That’s nice.” they’d retort, “And cool if you get it to work for you. But Amazon has a funny way of sucking the soul out of everyone I know who has worked there.”
The sauce here is that while operationally rigorous companies frequently win in their space, they’re usually miserable companies to work at as they grind workers to dust.
The author goes on to explain his research of routinely maligned mega-conglomerate Koch Industries shows them as the leading practitioners of the data part of the Deming philosophy, even beyond Amazon - I mean, of course. Every little part of their business is ruthlessly tracked, traced, and optimized, regardless of the human cost.
Now the above isn’t likely that surprising to you: big companies track and tune, ignoring the human cost. Shocker. But the takeaway here is far more profound: Our “common sense” dictates that all companies should track, grade, and reward based on individual worker outcomes and contributions, much like grade school, but this is largely ineffective in getting the outcomes we want. Our “hunch” is just wrong.
It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—a costly myth.
This may seem obvious on the surface — that’s the cost of excellence, right??? — but Chin points out that most practicioners of Deming’s system miss out on the rest of his teachings. Mainly the part where the core of his entire philosophy is “treat all workers with joy and respect.”
Could the Deming, Daddy of Data been misunderstood this entire time to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars? Absolutely.
Now, the author is setting out on a quest to find companies that both do the first part well - track, tune, and manage via data - but also uphold the second half of the deal which is “be cool.” We’ll report back if he finds anything.
This is indeed a managerial rabbit hole in which we could exhaust many lines talking about, so if you’re interested in going further you should check out the original blog post linked here and probably buy the book “The Symphony of Profound Knowledge” from which much of the quotes were taken.
Good luck out there.