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Peak Lessons from one of Amazon's Best Shifts

To lay down a claim that SAT2’s Back Half Night’s (Thursday through Saturday) shift is one of Amazon’s best is not done lightly in a company that prides itself on metrics and can track everything from the cataloging of the smallest unit of purchase to the actual time spent conducting a particular task. The shift’s success can be measured by throughput in which it finished first more than half of the time in last four months, or its rise from mediocrity as illustrated in the summer in spring months. But I would prefer to measure it in the growth of its managers and associates, from whom these lessons were borne. My own personal growth is an extension of the outstanding peer, manager and associate interaction on this shift of shifts of whom I could not be prouder to have worked alongside.

After completing my last Peak I highlighted that, “the ability to get better after experiencing difficulty and adversity is like building muscle. The more you are tested and the more you are challenged the better you are at using the strength gained through those experiences. Amazon’s Peak is just that; a series of tests, compulsory events and customer-driven requirements that start the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), go through Cyber Monday and do not end until Christmas Eve.” As I reflect on my second Peak I can honestly say that my growth in the business has been exponential. My process knowledge, business and tech experience and strength through adversity have all improved immeasurably since last year.

This year not only was Peak different for me as my role changed to Operations Manager, but Amazon took on next-day delivery, an homage to customer obsession that shot a charge through the tens of facilities that manage the receipt and delivery of the millions of customer orders a day. Experienced Amazonians stated that it has felt like days of old in the sheer amount of work required to keep up with customer demands as evidenced by both Black Friday and Cyber Monday seeing record customer purchases and volume.

My first lesson is the old tried and true “you cannot do it alone.” Delegation and subordinate trust were keys to the success of the shift. Assigning managers the requirements to track different elements of the shift and providing updates during regular sync meetings allowed me to focus on the bigger picture and to ensure that resources were available when needed. This also allowed the shift to track more tasks which directly resulted in higher throughput. The one bit of advice that I always remembered from my time in the military is that effective managers know what responsibilities to delegate to allow themselves time to plan, to collaborate with others in the organization, and to monitor the performance of their team. And when you do delegate managers feel a sense of trust and ownership in the team’s success.

The remainder of the lessons will come from this great team that I have raved about. The farmer, the former professional soccer star, the two managers that were promoted from the ground up and the old Air Force Admin NCO. I highlight this partially in jest, but also to give you an idea of the eclectic nature of Amazon. Granted they all have a tremendous amount of experience, they each have advanced degrees and are all smarter than me, but the magic formula is simply teamwork and caring about the associates that work the 12 hours each day to deliver on our customer promise.

Train the bench before peak. Farmer. On one of the first days of peak our shift had the opportunity to close out the day with over a million units; at the time no other facility had completed that high of a volume all year..and it was November. As the shift started we quickly realized that our indirect (support) staff training was lacking and we had to complete in-stride training of jam clearers and universal pick indirects. This oversight could very well have cost us the only opportunity for the facility and maybe even the network to have a record volume for the year.

Instruct associates on how their individual performance fits in the great scheme of the shift and business. Soccer Star. This gives high achieving teams and individuals a target to exceed if they are so inclined or an idea of how much they should improve to meet basic standards. It also gives them an incentive to complete swift labor moves, break returns and other instances where their performance could be adversely affected.

Incentives work. Air Force NCO. Tickets, prizes and spin or scan-to-win games were all great motivators for associates. The effort that associates exhibited during occasions when tickets were on the line was obvious and absolutely increased performance. Finding a way to include similar incentives throughout the year could take the edge off of the day and potentially offer sustained improved performance.

Communication and focusing on mandatory overtime associate experience. Tier 1 to Manager. Focusing on the associate experience can be beneficial to performance and the overall shift throughput. Overlooking where you staff overtime associates can be detrimental to the shift and should be a focus of the prior day plan. Optimally a shift should place overtime in prime locations to ensure high performance and quick communication of issues.

Many of the lessons were learned and implemented and made our shift better going forward and a few are aspirational and documented with the intent of implementation at a later date. In all cases it is essential for good and great shifts alike to recognize what and how they need to improve. Take it from the shift that lost the throughput scorecard half the time, and is comprised of a farmer, a soccer pro, an Air Force NCO, former Tier 1 managers and an old retired Colonel; you can always get better and Peak is just 11 months away.


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