When I read the Amazon article cited in Kevin’s post yesterday I was reminded of Henry Ford’s ‘Peace Ship’ debacle. The disconnect between Ford’s genius in automobiles and manufacturing and the sheer stupidity – the incredible naivety – of the Peace Ship venture is hard to reconcile. For those who don’t know about it, the ‘Peace Ship’ was a silly venture Ford financed and played a part in to bring about an end to World War I. How little he knew about politics, international economics, and foreign history and cultures was embarrassing. The same can be said of Amazon.
How the leadership of the company can be so brilliant at, well at being Amazon, and so incredibly ignorant of fundamental operations management is nearly impossible to understand. Just for the record, the 1920’s style management they apparently deploy in Campbellsville is not an anomaly. NPR, the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune took them to task for the very same issues at their operation in the Lehigh Valley last Fall.
Kevin pointed out the comparisons to Apple. The incongruence of technical genius and neanderthal operations management is certainly a characteristic of both companies. I have been troubled most, however, by Steve Jobs reply to Barack Obama’s question about what it would take to bring Apple manufacturing back to the United States. Said Jobs quite bluntly, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” Period. No room for error in his opinion. No possibility of anything other than his view being the right view. There is no questioning Job’s technical genius, but the siege under which Apple manufacturing is under in China, the spiraling costs of Chinese manufacturing, and the increasing flow of manufacturers leaving China and returning to the United States indicates he was way out of his element and not nearly knowledgeable enough about manufacturing to have spoken to anyone – let alone the President of the United States – with such unjustified arrogance.
I wonder what it is that leads people to assume demonstrated genius in one field makes them anything more than average in another. Whatever it is, it took hold of Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and apparently the folks running Amazon. You see it in entertainment superstars who make fools of themselves lecturing about the environment – think Ted Danson (on the strength of his fine arts degree) declaring in 1988 that the planet had only ten years of life left; and making a laughing stock of himself in the process. Or Robert Redford whose privileged Southern California youth and the year and a half studying art before he was kicked out of the University of Colorado led him to believe he is an expert on the complex historical, economic and social aspects of the native Americans, prepared to educate the rest of America.
On a more common local scale, that same self-delusion strikes a whole lot of business leaders – folks who became CEO on the strength of a brilliant career in finance or marketing assuming that makes them beyond learning anything about manufacturing or engineering.
The most important thing for anyone to know is what they don’t know – to know when they are outside of their element – when the time comes to stop lecturing and start listening. It would seem, however, that the more successful one is in any area, the harder it is to acknowledge ignorance in other areas.
And so we have Amazon and Apple – companies with brilliant products and innovative business models – running the sort of operations that formed grist for Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair. How can that possibly be reconciled?