Adam Sobolewski working in Amazon

3 things I have learned working at Amazon

When I internally announced that I was going to leave Amazon, many people could not believe what I was doing. Many more found it hard to believe that I didn’t want to work at Amazon anymore. 

One of Amazon’s supply chain veterans even asked me:

– What are you doing man?
– I am going to join a start-up.
-I have been here for ten years. Sometimes I reject outstanding roles because I am afraid of being disappointed but you take the risk?

Yes, I wanted to take the risk. People follow leaders and leave companies. The opposite is rarely true. Especially, if the main reason to join an organization is based on the company factors alone. 

I have already shared with you what I consider as the required characteristics of true leaders in logistics. Therefore, now I think it’s time to talk about what I learned over those years at Amazon. 

Do you want to know what’s behind the amazing supply chain machine?

It’s all about people

Every business leader says so, but most rather repeat after others than truly understand what it means.

On the other hand, I literally know that in logistics a motivated and well-trained team can easily deliver 8% to 12% more throughput than the same team without motivation or training. 

How do I know so precisely? Working at Amazon I saw teams operating in the same conditions and achieving completely different results. Both in terms of throughput (volumes per hour) and service level (making sure the specific order left the warehouse by a predefined time). Not to mention quality… 

Imagine a warehouse operating 24/7, whole year long. In an operation like that, you need to have at least 4 different teams working in the same building. 

Assuming an average of 40 hours of work per week, you need a front-week day, front-week night, back-week day, and back-week night teams to cover the whole operation. They all work on the same technology, systems, processes, and usually the same volumes. 

At least the same volumes in the long run (quarter or more) because volumes, of course, may and do differ between day and night as well as front and back week shifts. 

team working in Amazon
Photo: Team that delivered over 1.1 million units in a single day in one of the amazing Fulfillment Centers I had the privilege to manage.

However, teams in most countries rotate between day and night. In some countries, they rotate as well between front and back. This is regulated by each country’s labour law. 

With some exceptions, like the UK allowing permanent day or night shifts, in case it was specified so according to an employment contract.

exactly about people

As a result of working at Amazon or any other large fulfillment organization, in the long run, you can see in a quantified way that people really make a difference. 

Operationally delivering that additional 8% to 12% throughput, which may mean no need to invest in another warehouse, and strategically because experienced operations executives are the best ones to say what kind of technology works in your business. 

The choice between various warehouse automation solutions (AS/RS based on shuttles and cranes or AGVs for example) may make a bigger percentage difference when we just compare them, assuming all other factors are constant.

However, your team will be operating those solutions. And people in relation to technology don’t make an additive (+) difference. They tend to make a multiplicative (x) difference. 

Investment in your team is a better strategy than investment in any technology available. Technology will get obsolete anyway.

… and mountains of data

I have always been a number guy. When I still served as a demand planner in the Avon Cosmetics CEE operations team, we were working (and some of us also living) by a saying related to Edward Deming’s works.

We are demand planners. We may believe in God but all others should bring data.

— Anonymous planner

Many companies claim they are customer-focused and data-driven. In most cases, this is nothing more than a nice-sounding buzzword slogan. Repeated in the company’s foreword to yearly reports but not visible in daily operations. 

I have been an outlier in most retail organizations I worked for or with. I have seen commercial teams working in silos. Without knowing the implications of their decisions. I have seen logistics teams unaware of their productivity levels. 

When applying to Amazon, I had high hopes for a change in the approach. Hopes for an organization that would simply work in … an organized way. 

Nevertheless, I didn’t expect what I was later to experience working at Amazon, both in operations and supply chain planning. 

Virtually every process measured, every event noted with a timestamp and compared against all other sites across the globe. 

data structure like Death Star

Picture: Application data structure used to support and monitor one of the most complex supply chains. Looks like a Death Star and is (almost) equally powerful.

Starting from the number of customer views on a product page by the day, hour, and minute. Through inventory position of each SKU in every Fulfillment Center with an assignment of the aisle, rack number, and shelf level.

Up to the shipping label applied to a specific package and deviation (measured in seconds) versus the planned truck’s door closing during the departure. Allowing to answer a very simple, yet hard question, how much does logistics cost you? 

structured data

This is not just a mountain (or actually a lake) of data. This is much more because of one factor.

More important than the amount of data is its logical structure. All this information is tightly put together in sets of leading and lagging indicators. 

Amazon’s work culture truly embodies the economic idea. Almost everybody, up to the warehouse shift manager works (although, to be completely honest, not always consciously) on improving “inputs” because we can control those leading indicators. 

The approach leaves “outputs” or, in other words, things we don’t directly control (like service level) outside of our focus.

Truthfully liberating and forcing everybody to work on processes and tools that have the greatest impact. 

The approach to mar the effort by working on 5-10 things at once is not valued. The real value is attributed to work that has an impact. Those 2-3 needle-moving inputs. 

Something I have always been in favor of. However, I was not able to verbalize or explain it before working within Amazon’s data culture.

but culture really matters a lot

Speaking of the culture thing. We may differ on why it is important, but probably nobody working in international business would argue it doesn’t matter. 

Self-consciousness about your own and your co-workers’ cultural roots also means a lot. When your environment is stable, you can learn about everybody’s individual traits. 

Make sure to leverage common experiences and take time before decisions or evaluations are made. 

However, let’s concentrate on an environment that is fast-paced. Such as the situation of retail and logistics organizations during the 2019-2021 pandemic times! In situations like that, you really start to value common company culture and personal cultural awareness.

When working at Amazon, I reported to 8 people in less than 3 years. Each one had a completely different set of skills and backgrounds. One came from India, which represents quite different working culture than Europe.

Before Amazon, in various organizations, I went through a change of management a number of times. However, I have never been on such a roller coaster. 

Picture: Dimensions shown come from The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. I really appreciate this book. It was directly useful when I was working at Amazon. Here I present just 2 out of the 8 dimensions discussed there.

I have reported to men, to women, to people from Poland, Portugal, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. You name it… However, we always had the privilege to learn from each other. To take time. To unconsciously get together. 

and you need to be aware of it

On the other hand, at Amazon, I never had time for that. Therefore, until I learned to consciously manage my behavior and account for other people’s backgrounds… 

I had my share of mistakes. I offended a team leading one of the Distribution Center openings because I didn’t think about how to voice opinions on trade-offs they were forced to make.

When reporting to somebody from the other side of the world, I understood only after a few (unsuccessful) project decisions that naturally we weigh positive and negative arguments in completely opposite ways. 

As the saying goes – an expert is somebody who has made all possible mistakes. I may have not made them all (yet). However, working in Amazon’s diverse cultural environment has for sure made me more proficient in management than ever before.

In case you cannot count on such experience in your logistics team, then the best next thing is a real HR Business Partner. Yet, this is another story. 

Remember diversity & mobility!

Last but not least. Stressing out all those challenges with cultural differences I don’t want you to think that diversity is something undesirable. Quite the contrary. 

According to Gartner’s research, diverse teams achieve results up to 30% better than teams that are uniform. The main reasons are access to top talent and better decision-making processes.

Diverse teams are also more robust because they tend to have higher engagement levels. 

Then how to create greater diversity in your supply chain? 

Even without taking into account diversity, it’s not easy now to find logistics professionals nor staff warehouses. Recently, HAYS has reported the highest turnover levels in logistics for 10 years.

However, I am an example that the first step to diversity (and access to this top talent) is to really support mobility. 

As a Pathway Operations Manager, I have been moving between Fulfillment Centers, assignments, cities, and countries every 5-7 months. Within my first 2 years at Amazon, I supported a new FC launch, rebuilt inbound operations in another one, and managed changes in teams of up to 800 associates. 

Amazon diversed leadership
Picture: Amazon diversified leadership.

All this while already having responsibility for the family. Two kids. The older at the age of four. The second was just one year old at that time. I went through quite an ordeal and I was able to extract a real supply chain manager survival guide from it.

Of course, this would not be possible without passion for the topic and my wife. First and foremost, my wife. 


Nonetheless, Amazon Pathway Programme strategy also played a role. Pathways are like special forces. When I applied, the description on the public website stated: 

“program is seeking determined, high potential people that are ready to tackle challenges head on and grow into Amazon’s next General Managers, Directors and VPs. Talented individuals are crystallized into leaders through crucible experiences.”

On the one hand, working at Amazon requires a lot from Pathways. On the other, they are competitively compensated with base salary & options for company stock as well as supported by extensive relocation packages.

Sounds expensive from the company perspective?

Ask yourself what’s more expensive from the business point of view. Placing (temporarily) one or two such managers in a new site. Or delaying capacity increase of a rural warehouse from 9 to 11 million units weekly.

Programs that support mobility drive the business and increase team diversity as it’s sometimes hard to find the right people in the right place.

This is also an important insight that I gained first-hand while working at Amazon. 

Then why did I decide to leave?

Amazon is a really good place to be. Of course, as long your approach to work and life is compatible. In case you indeed like to:

  • make information-based decisions
  • take ownership and responsibility
  • have an impact and work hard

I encourage you to take the chance. Apply and maybe working at Amazon you will have your share of world-class operations and supply chain experience. You will also meet some great professionals. 

Professionals that are also awesome people and work buddies. Olga, Jacob, Łukasz, Patryk, Wojtek, Czarek, Adam, Adam, Adam, Ahmed, Tomasz, Francesco, Kasia. I already miss you.

Nonetheless, I want the impossible. I want something that right now no corpo can give me. I want to feel (again) that I create a business from scratch and everything depends on me.

I am not going for more money. I am not going for more prestige. Neither for more work-life balance. I don’t believe in work-life balance. I think the best you can have is work-life integration. 

Therefore, I have joined a start-up. I have taken the risk. 

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Till the next blog post!


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