Bloomberg Businessweek has a very interesting article up on Brad Stone’s new biography of Jeff Bezos. From the opening page of the article (with minor edits on my part):
Within Amazon.com (AMZN) there’s a certain type of e-mail that elicits waves of panic. It usually originates with an annoyed customer who complains to the company’s founder and chief executive officer. Jeff Bezos has a public e-mail address, email@example.com. Not only does he read many customer complaints, he forwards them to the relevant Amazon employees, with a one-character addition: a question mark.
When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark e-mail, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking bomb. They’ve typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred. [This is] Bezos’s way of ensuring that the customer’s voice is constantly heard inside the company.
Amazon employees live daily with these kinds of fire drills. Why are entire teams required to drop everything on a dime to respond to a question mark escalation?” an employee once asked at the company’s biannual meeting. “Every anecdote from a customer matters,” [a VP] replied. “We research each of them because they tell us something about our processes. It’s an audit that is done for us by our customers. We treat them as precious sources of information.”
It’s one of the contradictions of life inside Amazon: The company relies on metrics to make almost every important decision, yet random customer anecdotes, the opposite of cold, hard data, can also alter Amazon’s course.
Notice the answer to the employee’s question: [We do this} because it tells us something about our process. That is, every bad customer experience is not just an anecdote, it’s a data point. It’s process measurement point, and an out of spec one, at that. Now what’s the right thing to do when your process generates an out-of-spec result? You examine the process right then and there to make sure the process is not deteriorating. That’s what you’d do if you were managing a manufacturing process; that’s what you’d do if the plane you were flying generated an out-of-spec warning sign. That’s what the CDC does when it sees a single symptom cluster somewhere in the world. And that’s what you should do when a business process spews out an unwanted result. Undesirable things don’t “just happen” – everything that happens is the result of the process that you are running.
Note one other thing about this practice at Amazon: a small thing can have strategic importance. We’ve been saying this for years here at CMG. Strategically important things can be big (like your financial structure or your chosen markets), or they can be small – what makes them strategic is that they have large impacts on your company. Even the way the receptionist in your lobby greets visitors can have strategic importance in some cases.
Process counts. Little things count. Out-of-spec data points need to be looked at right away. That’s what process management is all about.