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Retail Industry Updates Supply Chain Industry Updates

Hands off the Wheel, Foot on the Gas

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iStock/Andrei Stanescu
  • A business journalist argues automation is a net positive for human employees, if handled right.
  • Case in point: Amazon’s “Hands off the Wheel” program, which opened the door to Amazon Go.

“Automation” is one of those ideas that sparks very strong but very different opinions among different people. To some, it’s a potential savior of U.S. industry, allowing smart companies to compete against foreign-based competitors and become more resilient to supply chain disruptions. To others, it’s a way for greedy corporations to vacuum up jobs at the expense of human workers in an effort to improve the bottom line for shareholders.

As usual, the truth is more complicated — and potentially more positive, including for the working Joes and Jills of the world. Alex Kantrowitz, author of the book “Always Day One: How The Tech Titans Plan To Stay On Top Forever,” recently noted that an Amazon program has helped the e-tail giant achieve business goals while providing career growth opportunities for employees. What’s not to love about this scenario?

“People who were doing these mundane repeated tasks are now being freed up to do tasks that are about invention — the things that are harder for machines to do.”

Amazon’s “Hands Off the Wheel” program is a decade-old initiative at its retail management division to use machine learning to handle the repetitive, formulaic work needed to keep its warehouses stocked. “Although some companies might have seen an opportunity to reduce head count, Amazon assigned the employees new work,” Kantrowitz wrote in a Harvard Business Review article that uploaded this week. “The company’s retail division workers largely moved into product and program manager jobs — fast-growing roles within Amazon that typically belong to professional inventors. Product managers oversee new product development, while program managers oversee groups of projects.”

Kantrowitz quotes Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s departing CEO of Worldwide Consumer: “People who were doing these mundane repeated tasks are now being freed up to do tasks that are about invention — the things that are harder for machines to do.”

One example of a freed-up employee was Dilip Kumar, formerly head of Amazon’s pricing and promotions operations. “Hands off the Wheel” allowed him to help create Amazon Go, a growing retail venture that an algorithm couldn’t have cooked up, and neither would have Kumar if he had stayed in his old role.

Of course, not every employee is a Dilip Kumar with an Amazon Go-like idea in their back pocket, and Kantrowitz noted that the transition caused a great deal of angst among some Amazon people. However, he wrote, “If Amazon is any indication, businesses that reassign employees after automating their work will thrive. Those that don’t risk falling behind.”

By the way, you might recall that “always day one” is a phrase popularized by Jeff Bezos, meaning an organization should continue to operate with the same nimbleness and openness to risk as it did on the day it was founded. 

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