The Amazon Way – Book Review


The Amazon Way

I absolutely love reading, but it wasn’t always that way. All throughout high school, I would fake my way through English class, reading as little as possible. I distinctly remember skimming through chapters as I walked to my Honors English class in high school, knowing that we’d be discussing The Great Gatsby that day. Nobody seemed to notice that I was faking it.

But now, I devour books as quickly as I can. So what has really changed? I’ve learned that books are one of the best ways to learn from the mistakes (and success!) of others. For it to really make a difference, I have to really internalize the lessons taught, or else I’ll just forget and move onto the next one.

The books that really make me stop and think are what I want to share here. Mostly they’ll be books I recommend reading, but sometimes I want to point out philosophies or ideas I completely disagree with. That’s what I want to do here.

Final Verdict: The Amazon Way is worth your time. You should read it. The leadership principles it goes over are sound (and should be copied), but there are some things you should keep in mind. I’ve added my notes and highlights below. I know this is a loooong review, but that’s because of how strong I feel about many of these topics (and I hope you do too!), and how much I got out of the book.


My Review, Highlights, and Notes

These are my personal notes, highlights, and thoughts as I read the book. They come from my personal perspective and experience. Even if you don’t read the book (and I recommend you do – its an easy read), I hope you are able to glean a ton of value from what I’ve learned.

Jeff Bezos is known for being a jerk, but it’s impossible to argue with how successful his company (Amazon) has become, and it is undoubtedly due to his leadership.

Is being a jerk either the cause of, or required for, the success Amazon has seen? I don’t think so. Although he certainly got people’s attention that way, I don’t think being a jerk was absolutely necessary. That is just his unfortunate “style”.

Not being a jerk doesn’t mean being a pushover. You can be honest, direct, and deadly serious without being a jerk.

What has made Amazon successful is a crystal clear vision, accountability, and clear expectations at all levels. This is what we should take away from this book. Don’t discount such a simple message, either. The book is definitely worth your time to see how that was accomplished. It is a fantastic reminder of just how crucial clarity is to the success of an individual, team, and entire company. Below are some of the takeaways that impacted me the most.


What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Being an innovative company means you can never stop innovating. It means you must challenge the innovation that got you where you are today.

– The Amazon Way, p. v (Forward)

This is a crucial point that is not only true of Amazon, but of our teams as well. The innovation and success that got us to where we are today isn’t necessarily going to get us to the next level. It is far too easy to become complacent and fall into a groove because we’ve found what allowed us to get to where we are today.

For example, Amazon recently changed their leadership principle from “Be Vocally Self-Critical” to “Learn and Be Curious” (p. viii), because they understood that their leadership culture needed a slight shift towards experimentation and calculated risk. Being “vocally self-critical” helped them reach a certain point, but through constantly questioning their own success, they recognized the need to change.

It’s impossible to stand still. You’re either moving forward, or backward. Maintaining the status quo and not moving forward is the same as moving backward. Before you know it, you’ll be passed up by a competitor, coworker, or someone you least suspect. Look for ways to continually improve and innovate, no matter how small your team is. Remember, you are paid to solve problems and grow your team or company, not maintain the status quo.


Small Independent Teams

Bureaucracy is a killer to innovation… The key to the small teams (six to ten people or smaller) is that hey truly own something — a product or feature; a service like the checkout cart; or a process like the warehouse receive process.

– Prologue, p. xi

Amazon calls this the “Two Pizza Rule”. Teams should be no larger than what two pizzas could comfortably feed. More than 6-10 people on a team invites bureaucracy and politics. Even in a company as massive as Amazon, small teams have ownership over distinct and specific parts of the company. This only works when teams are trusted and empowered to do what they feel is necessary to succeed.

The mentality of “managing your dependencies” is key to being a leader at Amazon.

– Prologue, p. ix

One example in particular that I liked was a post-mortem about a service outage. The outage ultimately occurred because another service within the company couldn’t scale properly. Instead of ending their post-mortem and discussion at that other system’s failure, they asked themselves what they could and should have done to predict, alert on, and proactively handle potential outages of services they depend on in their service.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader at Amazon.com is sacrificing long-term value for short-term results. Jeff wants his people to approach every business situation as an owner, not a renter.

– Chapter 2, p. 25

I really admire this, and it feels like the opposite of most companies I’ve been in. Its hard to prove your value and impact if it takes two years to see results, but this is clearly what has gotten Amazon to where they are today. How are we at protecting our people to give them the opportunity to invest in long-term solutions that will yield the best overall results? I’m sure we can all improve in this. The key is to keep a close eye on long-term projects so that your team doesn’t shoot itself in the foot with a failed project that should have been cut off months ago. You are in a leadership role most likely because you have the experience and intuition to make correct long-term choices. Give your less experienced employees a chance to experiment and make bets on long-term success, but don’t let them shoot themselves in the foot. Let them fail, but don’t let them be failures.

The following sums up this idea well:

The key, of course, is balancing a culture of long-term commitments with the need to deliver short-term excellence. You want a patient CEO, but you don’t want an extremely patient workforce. Maintaining an atmosphere of urgency is crucial. The best way to achieve that balance is with a sense of shared ownership. Amazon.com’s culture rewards people who plead passionately for their projects or ideas, and are empowered to respectfully challenge decisions.

– Chapter 2, p. 26

Small engineering teams are especially powerful when it comes to innovation and overall company improvement. If a company as massive as Amazon can empower their engineering teams to make independent decisions and solve their most critical problems, any company can.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon have a deep belief that small teams of world-class engineers can out-innovate massive bureaucracies. Why? It has a lot to do with the instinctive preference for clarity that engineers develop through a lifetime of working with numbers and system requirements. Whereas bureaucrats automatically obfuscate, engineers automatically qualify.

– Chapter 4, p. 60

How small, agile, and empowered are your teams? Give them a clear vision, clear expectations and accountability, and let them do what you hired them for!


Obsess Over the Customer

Leaders at Amazon start with the customer and work backwards… Although leaders pay attention to their competitors, they obsess over their customers.

– Chapter 1, p. 7

Not everyone or every team has a “customer” in the sense that Amazon does, but we’re all building something for, or serving, someone. Who is it in your case? Are you obsessed with them and their happiness? Rather than chasing features to keep up with your competitor, are you regularly talking to and collecting feedback from your customers, and then immediately acting on it?

The best customer service is no customer service — because the best experience happens when the customer never has to ask for help at all.

– Chapter 1, p. 8

As you build features or enhance the services you offer, are you doing it in a way that makes self-service as intuitive as possible? When customers ask questions, don’t just answer them and hope they don’t come back. Take a step back and question why they asked in the first place. Every question should not necessarily lead to a change in the product, but what themes are you noticing?

Jeff requires all of his managers to attend two days of call-center training each year. In fact, if you dial in to the call center on just the right day, you may even get Jeff himself on the line.

– Chapter 1, p. 20

If you are managing or leading a team right now, how often do you really put yourself in your team’s shoes? What would you learn by taking on one of their tasks or tickets? Things you take for granted or your team has become accustomed to could stand out like a sore thumb. There may be red tape or unwritten rules you didn’t even know existed unless you embed yourself with your troops periodically.


Does Your Team Have an Andon Cord?

Say you’re working in a busy Toyota assembly plant, and you notice that the widget you’re installing doesn’t fit or is broken. You immediately reach up and pull the Andon Cord, stopping the assembly line and forcing an inspection so that the defect can be ferreted out quickly… “The Andon cord is literally a cord that workers can pull — a cord they should pull — any time something in the manufacturing process goes wrong that would compromise the quality of the product or the safety of the people. The line stops immediately.

– Chapter 1, p. 18

The interesting thing about this philosophy (one that is also adopted by Amazon) is that teams and individuals are expected to pull the cord when they see something that needs to be fixed. Its not enough to say that they can. By providing some kind of mechanism for teams to call time out, and empowering every single individual — regardless of their title — to do so, you help ensure the absolute highest quality.

My teams don’t currently have a clear “Andon Cord”, but I’m thinking about what that might be. The first few times it’s “pulled” are going to be the most critical. If I blow it off or talk down to them in any way, I can kiss it goodbye. I suspect that once instituted, the Andon Cord would be pulled much more often in the beginning, as we work out the kinks. However, once we get going, I expect both our velocity and quality to increase for good.

It seems counter-intuitive to say that stopping all progress on an assembly line would lead to faster and better products, but it truly does. Paying for quality issues and technical debt up-front prevents you from having to deal with the side-effects of a shoddy product later, with all of the side effects (unhappy customers, working around tech debt, poor morale due to frustration while troubleshooting, etc). It is still crucial to remember the balance of shipping a product with some imperfections versus not shipping at all (due to perfectionism), but the decision to ship or not should be made by the team (considering business need, customer demands, support costs, etc).

The worst thing we can do is pretend that everything is going well when it is clearly not. Encourage a culture of open and respectful discussion, particularly about failure and what needs to change.

The highest level of customer service is impossible to achieve without a high degree of accountability and a willingness to be direct, open, and honest — especially when things are not going well…

When asking for a report on a failed project, all Jeff ever wanted to know was the following: “Here’s what didn’t work, why id didn’t work, and how we’re going to change.” If a project looked as if it might be heading for disaster, all he wanted to hear was, “We don’t think it’s going to work; let’s try something else.

– Chapter 2, p. 27


Ownership

The most empowering thing you can do is to give clear ownership over an area to a team or individual. In doing so, you must be absolutely clear about that ownership and your expectations.

Yes, It Is Your Job. Amazon.com employees quickly learn that the phrase “That’s not my job” is an express ticket to an exit interview. Ownership means not only mastering your domain but also being willing to go beyond the boundaries of your role whenever it’s needed to improve customer experience or fix a problem.

– Chapter 2, p. 28

How good are we at setting the expectation that all individuals are expected to not just work in their one little area of expertise? Instilling a culture of avoiding “That’s not my job” mentality is crucial to every healthy team and company. We must avoid the our team vs. their team mentality. “That’s not our team’s responsibility” is the same as “That’s not my job”, yet we hear it all the time. We have to remind ourselves and our teams that we’re all on the same mission. Egos must be checked at the door.

That being said, this principle is a double-edged sword. If everyone is out to fix everything, toes are easily stepped on, and the most assertive people tend to take over.

Taking absolute reponsibility for every possible dependency under your purview is no small task. Thi sis one oreason that very few have the rigor, determination, and tenacity to make it in a leadership role at Amazon.com It is a company of control freaks run by control freaks and lorded over by the king of control freaks.

– Chapter 2, p. 30

That sounds absolutely miserable to me. Very few people would actually enjoy that kind of environment. There has to be a balance of communication and trust.

At Amazon.com, your job description is never limited to simply running things. No matter what your job, you are expected to improve on the processes in ways that ultimately enhance the customer experience and lower costs. Amazon.com engineers, for example, do not consider themselves coders but rather problem solvers. This mentality promotes big thinking — game-changing solutions and inventions — rather than finger-in-the-dike fixes.

– Chapter 3, p. 33 (emphasis added)

Easily said, but difficult to accomplish. This is the culture and message we should always be promoting. We are all problem solvers, not cogs in a giant corporate machine. From the receptionist to the CEO, we can all solve problems to make our own work, our team’s work, and our companies more valuable.


“Bureaucracy is Process Run Amok”

Strong processes with measurable outcomes eliminate bureaucracy and expose underperformers.

So how do you recognize bureaucracy and distinguish it from well-defined process? When the rules can’t be explained; when they don’t favor the customer; when you can’t get redress from a higher authority; when you can’t get an answer to a reasonable question; when when there is no service level agreement or guaranteed response time built into the process; or when the rules simply don’t make sense — when any of these circumstances occur, the chances are good that bureaucracy is beginning to spread.

– Chapter 3, p. 38

Ouch. That one really hit home. How about you?

On many of my teams, we are at a process now where we have grown fast and documented too little. Bureaucracy crept its way in through what I often called “tribal knowledge”. The things that everyone “knew”, but only because they had been around for awhile. Lack of documented and clear process leads to bureaucracy. We wanted to remain “agile”, but too often we used that as a crutch for not developing clear processes for how things should work.

Having a process in place doesn’t mean you have to be inflexible. In many instances, it serves as a set of guard rails instead of leashes.

How can you deny a promotion to one person and grant it to another unless you clearly document what the expectations for promotion are? You certainly can promote someone because it seems obvious to you that they are exceeding expectations, but when everything feels like it is based on your gut feelings as a manager, that is bureaucracy.

If you don’t clearly document expectations, processes, and roles, you will be seen as playing favorites at some point.

Amazon.com operates to as close to a true meritocracy as possible. I cannot overstate how important this is for minimizing bureaucracy in the organization.

– Chapter 4, p. 56

If your expectations are clear and documented, and you reward success based on outcomes, not output, you can prevent bureaucracy from creeping in.


Leadership Characteristics

In my previous article It’s More Important To Be Right Than Nice, I mention how important it is to be right most of the time. A leader who makes too many mistakes is not someone that people are willing to stake their careers on. This is true at Amazon as well.

Make no mistake: there is a high degree of tolerance for failure at Amazon.com. A successful culture of innovation cannot exist without it. But what Jeff Bezos cannot tolerate is someone making the same mistake over and over again or failing for the wrong reasons.

Practices like “fudging the numbers,” “guesstimating,” “approximating,” and “bending the rules,” as well as deadlines that aren’t real deadlines and targets that are purely aspirational rather than firm objectives–all of these are anathema at Amazon.com

– Chapter 4, pp. 51-52

Too often, we rely on our own intuition or past experience for decision making. Making data-driven decisions are crucial to making and defending our decisions. When a decision turns out wrong but the data pointed to it likely being right before we began, our misjudgments are much more defendable. More importantly, though, the percentage of correct decisions we make is much higher when we make choices based on actual data, not gut feelings.

Math decisions always trump opinion and judgment. Most corporations make judgment-based decisions when data-based could be made.

– Chapter 12, p. 103

How good are you at making decisions based on actual data, not just past experience or gut feelings?


Trust

When it comes to becoming a leader that others will trust and follow, John Rossman highlights six principles that he adopted from Michael Hyatt’s excellent post titled “How to Build (or Rebuilt) Trust“. Both that article, and John’s full list that was adopted from that blog post (in the book) are well worth your time to read. In fact, I would argue that they should be read on a regular basis, and used to ask yourself how you’re doing. I will list the high-level items here, and encourage you to read the book for all the details:

  1. Open Your Kimono: Learn to take accountability and admit faults.
  2. Take the Hit: Accept responsibility for both the good and the bad.
  3. Build Up Your Team Members: The opposite of taking the hit. Publicly praise individuals on your teams for the good work they do.
  4. Ditch the Leash: Allow your team members freedom to explore new ideas and to be creative.
  5. Accept Confrontation: Fighting is not good, but neither is false agreement.
  6. Find the Value in Each Person: Everyone brings something different to the table.

If you have lost or feel that you have not yet earned the trust of your team, read the blog post then read chapter 11 in the book.


“Your People Are Your Company”

This has been a theme I’ve repeated here often. A company is nothing without its people. If you work them into the ground and don’t give them a reason to wake up in the morning, you may make a profit, but it won’t last. Likewise, if we rush to fill a position with the first “good enough” person to come along, we run the risk of murdering morale with a bad hire and bad situation we will then have to deal with (or risk losing all credibility).

From the beginning, Jeff understood how important it was to see Amazon with people who embodied the culture he wanted to create — that your people are your company… As Jeff often says, it’s better to let the perfect person go than to hire the wrong person and have to deal with the ramifications.

– Chapter 6, p. 68

There’s an entire chapter dedicated to hiring and their process. I couldn’t do it justice by paraphrasing it here. You should definitely read it. At first it annoyed me, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Read it with an open mind and let me know what you think.


Blame Nobody. Expect Nothing. Do Something.

In the chapter titled “Have a Bias for Action”, John Rossman highlights this phrase that appears in the locker room of Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Parcells. It describes perfectly the kind of culture we should be emphasizing with our teams. Having a bias for action is critical to any high-performing team or company. A team that has to constantly be told what to do is one that can be easily replaced with another more independent team.

If you are not inventing for your customers, and improving their experience every day — even in ways that may hurt short-term financial results — then someone else will.

– Chapter 9, pp. 87-88

This is true of individual teams as well as entire companies. Startups that “disrupt” industries are often taking advantage of this philosophy. If your team or company isn’t pushing hard to invent for your customers, eventually another team or company will come along and displace you. Fight the urge to become complacent!


Frugality

The chapter on Frugality was one of the most interesting to me. One of the things I struggle with right now is essentially politics, but it boils down to other people measuring their importance by headcount or their budget. Amazon strongly encourages and rewards doing more with fewer resources:

More than anything else, [Jeff] fears and loathes complacency — especially since the company still operates on razor-thin profit margins… [Frugality] discourages employees from measuring their importance by the amount of money they spend. No extra points are awarded for head count or budget size. Empire building by managers is virtually impossible, in part because there’s just no money for it.

– Chapter 10, p. 92

The entire chapter is interesting, particularly the part about The Legend of the Door Desk. It also highlights a pretty funny point about when a company takes a message too literally without thinking about the spirit of the message, when someone literally shipped door desks to Europe. If door desks are meant to signify frugality, how ironic it is that someone thought it would be a good idea to incur the expense to ship doors to Europe. Definitely worth the read for the lesson there.


Have Backbone

You don’t have to be a pushover in order to lead with integrity and kindness. It is still critical that you stand up for what you truly believe in. When you don’t stand up for your beliefs, you will be seen as a pushover and will be passed up for other leaders that will stand up. As a leader or manager, you’re not just there to approve PTO and monitor behavior. Your value comes from driving results. This requires backbone.

Leaders at Amazon have conviction. They are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting; they do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. But once a decision is made, they commit to it wholeheartedly.

– Chapter 13, p. 108

This is a tricky thing to get right. If you are too forceful, you run the risk of being seen as a narcissistic jerk. If you don’t stand up for your beliefs or your team, you’re a pushover. You must learn to choose your battles wisely. You can’t (and shouldn’t) fight them all. Fight the ones that you believe will drives the best results for the company, and leave emotion out of the conversation. Remember, presenting data (facts) is always better than arguing based on your gut feeling — also known as “experience” — which often masquerades as fact (when it is often really just a guess based on the past).


Things I Disagree With

The leadership principles that drive Amazon’s success are sound. They should be learned from and adopted when possible. What I take issue with is Jeff’s lack of empathy for life outside the office.

It is clear that Amazon.com is Jeff’s baby. It’s his life. He lives and breathes it, and he expects everyone else to as well. I don’t doubt that he truly believes he is changing the world (he is!), but in doing so Jeff expects everyone to give up their lives for his vision.

I’m sorry, but that’s a pretty sad life. 

I believe that when given a clear vision, clear expectations, and clear accountability, smart and driven people can accomplish insanely awesome things. However, that doesn’t and shouldn’t require them to sacrifice their personal or family lives to do so. Consistent and steady progress is better — and more scalable — than heroic effort.

None of the fourteen principles mentions the need for ra healthy work-life balance. That is not an accident. Jeff expects all of his people to function as both owners and leaders. He wants you to drive the business as if it were your own car, not some weekend rental.

– Chapter 7, p. 77

That’s cute and all, but whose pockets are being lined by killing yourself for the company? You can still have a strong sense of ownership and purpose while also maintaining a good work-life balance. A good work-life balance is itself a form a payment for your dedication and contributions to your company.

At the end of the day, the individuals we work with are people. They had lives, goals, and dreams before they met you, and they will after they leave. We can accomplish some truly awe-inspiring results without sacrificing our families and dreams, and without being a pushover.

That being said, the business is what provides our paycheck and pays our bills. It is a business, not a country club, so we owe it to those who hired us to provide more value than they are paying us in dollars and benefits. It is a symbiotic relationship that thrives most when both sides are happy. Jeff’s expectations seem to be far too one-sided to me.

Could Amazon.com have succeeded as quickly without requiring such sacrifice from so many people? Let’s be honest: probably not. What they’re trying to accomplish so quickly is not for everyone — probably not for most — but land-grabs often require such dedication. That’s what Amazon essentially is. They’re working as quickly as possible to take over the world.

So the question is what you want your life to be about. Do you want to run or work for a company that wants to change the world at the expense of your other hopes and dreams? If so, bon voyage.

I think we can create amazing companies and teams that change their own little parts of the world without sacrificing our friends and families.

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Howdy. Glad you're here! A word of advice: If you’re looking to pick a fight in the comments, don’t bother. I welcome disagreement because it encourages healthy discussion, but I’m not going to allow personal attacks or angry trolls to distract from the message.

1 Comment

  • Nick says:

    A quote I really love from the Michael Hyatt post you linked – “Nothing builds trust like love. What does love have to do with the workplace? Everything.”

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