The truth behind takt time

A few months ago my wife ordered a hole punch from Amazon one evening. It cost £5.49. The following morning at 8.00 there was a knock at the door. The hole punch was delivered.

That really is as much as I know for a fact about Amazon’s business processes. I was, therefore, shaken by an item on BBC News alleging Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’. I don’t think the quotes make that anything other than an alarming headline. The item trailed a BBC documentary The Truth Behind The Click. UK readers can see the documentary here on BBC iPlayer. I thought that I would wait until I watched the documentary before I commented.

Having now watched it, I think it is difficult to draw any conclusions from the programme. Its tone was so plainly tendentious. The BBC had sent a covert reporter with a video camera into an Amazon warehouse, he having misrepresented himself as a job seeker. Some of the video, taken from the perspective of an Amazon employee picking in a warehouse, looked to me as though it was shown speeded up.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an expert in public health, was shown the video, I presume the same limited and selective one shown on the BBC. He observed that:

The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows, increase the risk of mental illness and physical illness.

Sadly there is no analysis. We were not told what characteristics, what the supposed levels of safety or what the supporting evidence. There was no quantitative data drawn from more than one individual.

Part of the problem with the programme was, I think, that three principle issues have been conflated here.

  • The general nature of repetitive manual work.
  • The psychological impact of working to an externally set “drum beat”.
  • The physical and cognitive effects of working at a particular rate.

Repetitive work

Repetitive work has always been with us. Some people find in it dignity and liberation. The Buddhist practice of samu, repetitive physical work performed with mindfulness, is part of Zen spiritual dicipline and the quest for enlightenment. Conversely, socialist pioneer William Morris believed that we should all be composing epic poems in our heads while sat weaving at the loom.

That being said, such work is not for everybody. I got the impression that Amazon were fairly clear to new employees as to what was involved. This is where recruitment is a key business process, identifying people who will fit with this type of role and stick with it.

However, I see nothing in general sinister about such work.

Drum beat

What delivered that hole punch so quickly was the “drum beat” that regulates work along the supply chain. This is a fundamental part of the Toyota Production System and lean operations generally.

The takt time specifies the rate at which products are being despatched to customers. That sets the rate at which pickers need to work. If the pickers work too quickly then packages build up in front of the despatch area. If too slowly, the despatch area stands idle. Both entail cost or delay that has to be passed on to the customer. The customer suffers.

The programme interviewed workers who felt the “drum beat”, announced through the bleep on a hand held electronic scanner, dehumanising. The BBC journalist clearly shared their view. The workers felt this deprived them of autonomy. They felt that they were not encouraged to think of [them]selves as human beings.

We do not show enough respect for boring work. We tend to sentimentalise and even glamorise the sort of active participation in work that too often results from having to resolve a non-conformance, a defect, a delay or an emergency. That is not useful work, no matter how much satisfaction it offers the employee.

I sometime sense a bien pensant nostalgia for the days when millions were employed in repetitive tasks on piece work. I think the BBC especially self indulgent on this matter. Piece work of course incentivises a worker to produce as much as they can even if that increases costs to the company in storing it until it can be used, if it ever is. The benefit of the drum is that the worker is required to produce no more or less than society needs. The laudable aim of lean operations is to reduce waste, Toyota use the Japanese term muda.

What I think was missing at Amazon was engagement of all employees in improvement. The usual quid pro quo for diligently following the drum is that part of the day is spent off-line in improvement work where an employee can, if so inclined, exercise their ingenuity. However, I am aware that the BBC reporter was recruited for the Christmas rush. That is not a period that anybody devotes to improvement work. Production is king. Improvement should have been prioritised earlier in the year when volumes were slow.

I think though that there is still an opportunity for a periodic review of the voice of the customer with all staff. It is focus on the customer that ultimately legitimises and justifies the discipline. I think Amazon staff would appreciate being reminded of just how quickly their orders are getting to customers, the variety of desires satisfied so promptly and the volume of transactions despatched, all through their discipline and focus on the drum.

Perhaps Amazon do this but the reporter didn’t stick around long enough to hear.

Work rate

This is the toughest part of the allegations to analyse. Was the takt time just set too quick for human capability? There is probably some flexibility in setting the rate for any individual as capacity can be increased by employing more pickers. There must be some limit on the number of pickers as the warehouse aisles will only accommodate so many on the move. However, as I said above, I found the overall tone of the programme so tendentious that I cannot take its criticisms at face value. No analysis by Professor Marmot was presented. Amazon have serious legal obligations to provide their workers with a safe system of work and to carry out health surveillance. Amazon have to cope with the real costs of absenteeism, staff turnover and litigation. I would be surprised if they had not analysed work demands thoroughly and diligently.

I do confess to feeling uncomfortable at the practice of terminating employment on the third consecutive day’s sick leave but, ultimately, it is a matter for Amazon.

I think that my conclusion from watching the programme is that it is critical to maintain all employees’ extrinsic motivation by the voice of the customer through constant review and emphasis of how an individual’s discipline contributes to the overall market impact. Goal deployment helps. Beyond that, I’m not persuaded by the BBC’s criticism.

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