Amazon is an astonishing company for a whole lot of reasons, but there is one that is not front and centre in most conversations I have seen and in which I have been involved. This is the means by which Amazon just keeps on innovating, genuine, disruptive innovations, time after time, at astonishingly small intervals.

Note: This link is to an expanded version of this infographic from Visualcapitalist.com

 

Amazon must have the internal processes that enable it to punch out new businesses, and business models that way a factory stamping machine pumps out widgets.

The biggest impediment to efficiency on a widget machine is the changeover times between widget sizes and internal specifications.

Quick changeover is a hallmark capability sought by manufacturing companies employing Lean thinking, and is a challenging proposition, even in a small, tightly run factory. So how does Amazon achieve it at scale in businesses as complex as it routinely disrupts.

Amazon started by flogging books, or as CEO Jeff Bezos  (apparently) liked to say in the early days, ‘we do not sell books, we make books easy to buy’

The hallmark of a successful lean implementation in a factory is that there are processes that take a prospective order through the whole ‘sales funnel’ to production, delivery, and ongoing relationship building. Lean practitioners call it the ‘Value Stream,’ the set of activities required to deliver value to the customer. These are all done the same way, every time.

The paradox is that this process stability is the foundation of innovation, you need a stable base in order to trial ideas at speed, then scale the ones that work. This is an idea sometimes hard to communicate but as fundamental as it gets to successful innovation and continuous improvement.

Amazon appears to have achieved this at scale, in a service business, typically harder than a manufacturing business to get traction.

How?

Amazon is organised just like a whole collection of independent business units, all cross fertilising, and cross pollinating each other, using (I suspect) what Ray Dalio would term ‘Radical Transparency‘.

The secret seems twofold:

  • The internal technology that Amazon uses across all its activities, is modular and scaleable.  It is in effect the machine enabling the manufacturing of Amazon widgets. This enables new businesses to be added the way you would add another coloured widget to the sales inventory of a manufacturing business. I suspect the scalability will be the source of the next round of disruptions coming to the fast moving goods retailers.
  • Each part of the business multiplies the customer impact of the ones next door, a ‘flywheel’ effect. Digital technology enables the network or ‘Flywheel’ effect to build momentum. The more eyeballs you have on one side of the network equation, the greater the value to the other side. This effect builds scale very efficiently once you have reached a tipping point, reflecting Metcalf’s law which states that the value of a network increases with the number of nodes in the network.  Amazon has created their own version of Metcalfe’s law amongst their own offerings, one product or service leading to the one next door.

Bezos has achieved something that I think will be studied for decades, and it is clear he is not stopping any time soon. The only thing that appears likely to slow the momentum is regulatory intervention. Amazon has 44% of  on line retail sales in the US, 35% of global cloud services, a market growing at 40% a year,  where AWS is bigger than the next 5 biggest combined. The list goes on. The point is, Amazon is chewing up competition everywhere, yet pays very little tax, $1.4 billion since 2008, while Wal-Mart has paid $64 billion over the same period, so in effect, Wal-mart is subsidising its greatest threat to eat its lunch. Outcomes and numbers like that will have to prod regulators into some sort of action, before Amazon (and to be fair, Facebook and Google are very similar, even more dominating in their markets)  is in a position of power so dominant that regulators cannot stop them.

Amazon, a product of the 21st century is simply outrunning the capacity of the institutions and public mind set of the 20th century by reshaping our world around us, and with our consent by unthinking compliance. They are being joined in this exercise by Google, Facebook,  Alibaba Tencent, and a few other aspirants like Netfliks, to dominate the way we think, behave and work.

Header photo Jeff Bezos circa 1998