Kempner's Unofficial Business: Amazoned: Metrics are reshaping our jobs, happiness

“His answer to every problem, every setback was ‘I will work harder!’ – which he had adopted as his personal motto.”

Boxer, the draft horse, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm

Mega retailer Amazon has made online shopping impossibly affordable, fast and humane whether you are hunting for galoshes or textbooks or a 4-in-1 convertible baby crib.

It is also, apparently, a soul-crushing employer. At least, that is the way Amazon came off in a recent front-page New York Times story.

The company that uses data to serve consumers better also is portrayed as using data in an unforgiving drive to not only boost quality but also wring productivity out of its employees.

I was struck by the Times’ image of a former Amazon employee who described seeing nearly all his co-workers cry at their desks.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos sent a memo to employees saying the piece didn’t “describe the Amazon I know.”

Maybe. But plenty of people know what it’s like to be hit by the surging use of data to make them more productive and valuable to employers.

Amazon, callous or not, is just one hyper-competitive player in the march of metrics. Employees of organizations from Fortune 500s to school systems and hospitals are facing the pressures and hoping not to be sucked dry in the process.

NUMBERS CRUNCH

Data crunching has helped businesses find new ways to excel. But what might make for consumer nirvana could also spell worker hell.

This struck me recently as I chatted with Steve Knox, a nice guy I know, the husband of one of my wife’s friends.

He and I talked at a gathering after a funeral for a great mutual friend who died too young. I hadn’t seen Steve in at least a couple years, and we caught each other up on how our lives were going.

He mentioned that he had left his job managing a collision repair shop in DeKalb County. Now he is working with a friend in heating and air conditioning service, a job with flexible hours so he can spend more time with his kids. (He told me about how his son used to set an alarm for early each morning, just so he could wake up to say goodbye to his dad who worked long hours into the night.)

At the collision repair business, Steve told me about how referrals from insurance companies accounted for 90 percent of the work. And in recent years, he said, a bunch of new measurements and rankings by the insurers added intense pressure at the 13-person shop.

After the Amazon story came out, I called him to find out more.

“You were always under pressure to perform, perform, perform,” he told me.

They measured when a vehicle was dropped off, when work started on it, when it was finished, what percentage of used parts were installed, the average amount of the bill, even the average size of customer rental car bills.

Insurers compiled rankings, measuring one shop against another, adding extra drive to outdo the competition.

THE SQUEEZE

Call it the squeeze.

Come up short in the rankings and insurers might cut back on referrals to the shop, slicing into its business. But excel in the rankings and it cuts into the shop’s profits and, ultimately, wages for the body shop’s workers, Steve said.

The pressure to work faster and cheaper helped consumers and eliminated some inefficiencies, Steve said.

There was one insurer that focused on metrics to make sure consumers were treated right and kept informed by the shop.

Still, the overall pressure for speed meant techs couldn’t spend as much time trying to keep body filler as thin as possible, he said. The thicker the filler, the more likely the vehicle will show cracks years later. No such thing as a free lunch.

Steve said his goal was to keep the shop at the top in quality. Balancing that with the pressures of time and cost metrics was the challenge. He ended up working longer hours.

The trend was to make the metrics more and more detailed.

And there was no wiggle room. Get too many cars that he referred to as “hard hits” — ones towed in with lots of damage — and it could sink the shop’s monthly metrics.

“They tried to make it an exact science and it is not,” Steve said. “You are trying to create this machine.”

The heating and air conditioning job he has now doesn’t have a bunch of metrics.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

Earlier this year, Amazon expanded nationwide its program linking shoppers with home repair and other service providers. It included, the company said, its “Happiness Guarantee.”

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