It Just Sticks

In 2006, Amazon hired me as a Finance Manager for a Fulfillment Center in Chiba, Japan. Later I took on responsibility for Finance in the warehouse network. Then, in 2011, I made the shift from Finance to Operations Planning.

What you focus on defines who you are as a company. Amazon is probably best known for a corporate culture that’s based on data, metrics. This is what attracted me to the company these 8 years ago. As Drucker says, “What gets measured, gets managed.” It’s driven from the top, and it pervades the culture. Everything that should be measured is. Safety, of course, is measured. Safety incident rates are analyzed. But measurement alone doesn’t make it part of who you are, doesn’t make it stick.

In Operations, meetings start with a safety tip. Someone in the meeting offers a story about safety, usually relevant to something that happened in the genba, sometimes not. The type of safety is not important; all safety is always relevant. And it comes first. When it comes first, every meeting, for eight years, it kind of starts to stick.

I was out on the streets of my town in Chiba, near where I live. It’s an unusual town in that it has wide streets, broad sidewalks, and plenty of parks, a rarity in Japan. I moved to this neighborhood for that very reason. I have 2 little kids, and I wanted them to have sidewalks to ride their bikes on.

In this neighborhood, people drive slowly. There’s no reason to drive through it unless you live here. There is no highway access, no major roads to connect. On that particular day, the weather was nice, the temperature cool, the slowly moving driver at my intersection was looking at the trees on the other side of the street. It was pretty.

I had the right of way, he had a stop sign. I stopped at that intersection with a sense that this driver was not going to stop. I watched the driver intently, waiting to see what he would do. Despite the fact that he was looking the other way, he turned, our eyes met. After a moment, he seemed to come back to reality and stopped, albeit half a car length into the crosswalk. Not really a near-miss. Not at all, really. But it reminded me about shop floor safety, forklifts on the ship dock.

The genba has rules about these kinds of things. You are responsible for knowing where the powered trucks are, not the other way around. And you always make eye contact. Simple rule, but it works because of how people use their eyes. It’s not just looking, it’s communicating. We all have a sixth sense. Even when someone is outside your field of vision, you can tell when someone is looking at you. They might be checking you out, sizing you up, or trying to say something. And it takes brain power to look into someone’s eyes because you are taking their attention and using it to communicate.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter why. It just stuck.

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