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Amazon.com's Chief Lean Thinker

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 08-02-10

This week I’ll be blogging about various things I’ve found around the internet. Of course, the volume of content continues to increase. I sometimes wonder if the rate of increase of garbage outpaces the good stuff. But there is plenty of good stuff as well.

I’m always on the lookout for entrepreneurs that secretly double as lean thinkers. Many great entrepreneurs are not – they are focused on their product or service and do a fantastic job of it. There is nothing wrong with that. But on the whole, I believe that lean thinkers can make an entrepreneur even better, because they add process thinking which really can help them build a stronger organization.

I’ve already written about Jason Fried, who I think is a fantastic lean thinker, and recently wrote a book (which I haven’t gotten to read yet) called Rework (affiliate link below).

We’ve already known Jeff Bezos is not only a lean thinker but an outright advocate of lean. But this response to a recent interview in Fortune magazine really caught my attention:

Fortune: In the past, you’ve said that a company learns just as much as by its failures as it does by its successes. Do you still believe that?

Bezos: Well, the key is that the company has to experiment, and what you want to try and do is reduce the cost of experimentation so you can do as many experiments per unit time as possible so you can do as many experiments per week, per month, per year as you can –and they’re not experiments if you know they’re going to work.

So you want to do a lot of these experiments, and many of them will fail, and that’s okay. Because if you’re doing enough of them, there will be some winners. That’s the only mindset you can have if you want to invent. At Amazon, we’re very focused on invention. If you look at the things we focus on, we’re never trying to create a “me-too” product offering.

And by the way, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with “close following.” It’s a very common business strategy. You just say we’ll wait. Let all of our competitors do all the experiments. Most of them will fail, but we’ll watch very carefully, and as soon as something looks like a success, we’ll follow very closely. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just happens to not be our strategy.

Lean is about problem solving and learning, which I’ve said many times, more than it is about waste elimination. Building a learning organization is both about the process of experimentation, naming treating process improvement as experimentation, but also the pace of experimentation. Jeff clearly articulates the benefit of rapid experimentation.

Comments

  • As usual, Bezos is spot-on. I remember that when Bezos was inventing the company, the analysts (most of whom just seem to want a sure thing) were chiding him for not turning an immediate profit. Not that I have the stomach for the course that Bezos took to establish Amazon, but time has surely proven his approach.

    In my mind, THE key component of lean is learning. In fact, without that component, you do not have a lean system.

    As usual, a thought-provoking post.

    Kurt B. Carr August 2, 2010 at 9:20 am
  • As usual, Bezos is spot-on. I remember that when Bezos was inventing the company, the analysts (most of whom just seem to want a sure thing) were chiding him for not turning an immediate profit. Not that I have the stomach for the course that Bezos took to establish Amazon, but time has surely proven his approach.

    In my mind, THE key component of lean is learning. In fact, without that component, you do not have a lean system.

    As usual, a thought-provoking post.

    Kurt B. Carr August 2, 2010 at 9:20 am
  • As usual, Bezos is spot-on. I remember that when Bezos was inventing the company, the analysts (most of whom just seem to want a sure thing) were chiding him for not turning an immediate profit. Not that I have the stomach for the course that Bezos took to establish Amazon, but time has surely proven his approach.

    In my mind, THE key component of lean is learning. In fact, without that component, you do not have a lean system.

    As usual, a thought-provoking post.

    Kurt B. Carr August 2, 2010 at 9:20 am
  • Jamie, thanks for sharing the Bezos interview. Rework is a great book and it’s a very fast enjoyable read. And it’s full of lean thinking (of course, Fried and Heinemeier-Hansson don’t give it the name “lean”, they just think in a “lean” manner).

    They communicate concepts like respect for people:

    When everything constantly needs approval, you create a culture of nonthinkers. You create a boss-versus-worker relationship that screams, “I don’t trust you.”

    focusing on customers:

    The people who make the product work in the “kitchen” while support handles the customers. Unfortunately, that means the product’s chefs never get to directly hear what customers are saying. Too bad. Listening to customers is the best way to get in tune with a product’s strength and weaknesses.

    as your post here talks about: experimentation and improvement:

    Whenever you can, swap “Let’s think about it” for “Let’s decide on it.” Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.

    and even eliminating waste:

    (within their book!) We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it.…which also creates value for their customers.

    There are great, insightful nuggets in that book that are all in chapters that are each roughly two pages long. Lots of value in bite-sized chunks.

    (hopefully my post here doesn’t turn out to be a mess…I tried to use some tags for emphasis)

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 9:56 am
  • Jamie, thanks for sharing the Bezos interview. Rework is a great book and it’s a very fast enjoyable read. And it’s full of lean thinking (of course, Fried and Heinemeier-Hansson don’t give it the name “lean”, they just think in a “lean” manner).

    They communicate concepts like respect for people:

    When everything constantly needs approval, you create a culture of nonthinkers. You create a boss-versus-worker relationship that screams, “I don’t trust you.”

    focusing on customers:

    The people who make the product work in the “kitchen” while support handles the customers. Unfortunately, that means the product’s chefs never get to directly hear what customers are saying. Too bad. Listening to customers is the best way to get in tune with a product’s strength and weaknesses.

    as your post here talks about: experimentation and improvement:

    Whenever you can, swap “Let’s think about it” for “Let’s decide on it.” Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.

    and even eliminating waste:

    (within their book!) We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it.…which also creates value for their customers.

    There are great, insightful nuggets in that book that are all in chapters that are each roughly two pages long. Lots of value in bite-sized chunks.

    (hopefully my post here doesn’t turn out to be a mess…I tried to use some tags for emphasis)

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 9:56 am
  • Jamie, thanks for sharing the Bezos interview. Rework is a great book and it’s a very fast enjoyable read. And it’s full of lean thinking (of course, Fried and Heinemeier-Hansson don’t give it the name “lean”, they just think in a “lean” manner).

    They communicate concepts like respect for people:

    When everything constantly needs approval, you create a culture of nonthinkers. You create a boss-versus-worker relationship that screams, “I don’t trust you.”

    focusing on customers:

    The people who make the product work in the “kitchen” while support handles the customers. Unfortunately, that means the product’s chefs never get to directly hear what customers are saying. Too bad. Listening to customers is the best way to get in tune with a product’s strength and weaknesses.

    as your post here talks about: experimentation and improvement:

    Whenever you can, swap “Let’s think about it” for “Let’s decide on it.” Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.

    and even eliminating waste:

    (within their book!) We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it.…which also creates value for their customers.

    There are great, insightful nuggets in that book that are all in chapters that are each roughly two pages long. Lots of value in bite-sized chunks.

    (hopefully my post here doesn’t turn out to be a mess…I tried to use some tags for emphasis)

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 9:56 am
  • I’m a big fan of Bezos.

    I heard many good things about Rework and was very disappointed. It was a lot of fluff and empty platitudes, I thought. I quit reading about half-way through. It was a quick read, but it wasn’t worth the time.

    Mark Graban August 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm
  • I’m a big fan of Bezos.

    I heard many good things about Rework and was very disappointed. It was a lot of fluff and empty platitudes, I thought. I quit reading about half-way through. It was a quick read, but it wasn’t worth the time.

    Mark Graban August 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm
  • I’m a big fan of Bezos.

    I heard many good things about Rework and was very disappointed. It was a lot of fluff and empty platitudes, I thought. I quit reading about half-way through. It was a quick read, but it wasn’t worth the time.

    Mark Graban August 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm
  • Mark, no doubt everyone doesn’t like the book, but I’d bet if American Airlines had its employees spend a few hours reading and applying Rework to their roles rather than a couple years on their MBAs your recent experiences with them might have been a lot better!

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm
  • Mark, no doubt everyone doesn’t like the book, but I’d bet if American Airlines had its employees spend a few hours reading and applying Rework to their roles rather than a couple years on their MBAs your recent experiences with them might have been a lot better!

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm
  • Mark, no doubt everyone doesn’t like the book, but I’d bet if American Airlines had its employees spend a few hours reading and applying Rework to their roles rather than a couple years on their MBAs your recent experiences with them might have been a lot better!

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm
  • Scott, the problem isn’t A.A. employees, it’s their executives! Having their employees read that book would probably only make them more frustrated, IMHO.

    Mark Graban August 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm
  • Scott, the problem isn’t A.A. employees, it’s their executives! Having their employees read that book would probably only make them more frustrated, IMHO.

    Mark Graban August 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm
  • Scott, the problem isn’t A.A. employees, it’s their executives! Having their employees read that book would probably only make them more frustrated, IMHO.

    Mark Graban August 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm
  • Hey, execs are employees, too! They’re not exempt from reading it and unlearning their MBA knowledge! Really, that’s who I was referring to anyway…the people who are driving the 100% utilization mentality through AA need to be the sample people shifting the mindset to a customer focused one. And tying the discussion back to Jamie’s original post here: the organizational mindset clearly starts at the top, as it does with Bezos. The AA customer service reps are only reflecting expectations from the top, which is most certainly a cost-focused one…if only they were allowed to “experiment” with how they have handled your situations (and countless others).

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm
  • Hey, execs are employees, too! They’re not exempt from reading it and unlearning their MBA knowledge! Really, that’s who I was referring to anyway…the people who are driving the 100% utilization mentality through AA need to be the sample people shifting the mindset to a customer focused one. And tying the discussion back to Jamie’s original post here: the organizational mindset clearly starts at the top, as it does with Bezos. The AA customer service reps are only reflecting expectations from the top, which is most certainly a cost-focused one…if only they were allowed to “experiment” with how they have handled your situations (and countless others).

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm
  • Hey, execs are employees, too! They’re not exempt from reading it and unlearning their MBA knowledge! Really, that’s who I was referring to anyway…the people who are driving the 100% utilization mentality through AA need to be the sample people shifting the mindset to a customer focused one. And tying the discussion back to Jamie’s original post here: the organizational mindset clearly starts at the top, as it does with Bezos. The AA customer service reps are only reflecting expectations from the top, which is most certainly a cost-focused one…if only they were allowed to “experiment” with how they have handled your situations (and countless others).

    Scott Sorheim August 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm