Category Archives: operations

Three years to build a ship, three hundred to build a tradition



As a shut-in who hates sunlight, I am a big user of Amazon Prime. Most things I order from Amazon are things I should not order from Amazon. They are things I should get for myself, but do not, because I really am too goddam lazy to just walk five goddam minutes to the store.

Unfortunately for my laziness, Amazon has started its own shipping service. It is not very good at delivering packages to my door. It is, in fact, quite bad. Google "AMZL_US", it's a world darker than "Untied Airlines."

So far I am 0 for 2 on packages delivered via them actually showing up — Joseph K. logged into his Amazon account to see that two nothings had been delivered to his doorstep. Phone service was very helpful, as soon as they realized the orders were sent via Amazon's own shipping service they offered to send replacement orders for free. "No need to bother asking if he's looked for it," the nice woman in the North Carolina phone bank thinks to herself. "We know there's nothing there. We've never successfully delivered a package."


I live in an apartment complex. My address looks something like this:

XXX Streetname

If you live in an apartment complex, I would like you to conduct a little experiment. Go to the unit where XXX and YYY are the same, something like

123 Streetname
Apt 123

If your complex is anything like mine, they will have posted signs everywhere. The first will seem reasonable — "Please check Apt number on package" — and then you'll see another, more aggressive, it's strokes rushed — "Do not deliver unless Apt # is 123, this is only for Apt 123" — and then another, gashed into the its canvas in a frenzied hand, its ink a dark red that makes you wonder where it came from — "ONLY APT 123 DELIVERIES YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED TURN BACK"

If you're feeling particularly adventurous, tape up a box, put on your best UPS Browns, and knock on their door. Listen to the tears of the children, "Daddy! Make it stop!" Look at the mother comforting the children, "Daddy will make the bad men stop!" Look into the mad eyes of the man holding the double barreled shotgun. Do what the man tells you. Read off the Apt number on the box, nice and slow.

I probably should have mentioned this earlier — write "Apt 123" on the box.


You know how your friends are stupid morons who take forever to find your apartment even though you gave them the address and directions? You know how you spend fifteen minutes trying to get to a restaurant, because the streets don't make any sense here, dammit, but you know you're real close?

My parents house is on a corner. It has two driveways that open to two different streets. One is fairly simple. If I am in the car, I will insist you use that one. If you come from the main street without me, you will see the other approach, a nice big driveway to turn into, made for cars. "Hey, I'm driving a car!," you think to yourself. "Let's turn into that driveway," you say in your best teen-in-a-horror-move-voice, "what's the worst that could happen?"

It is a trap. Do not go in there. It is a twenty foot curved stretch of asphalt with with steep ten foot drops to either side. Better drivers than you have tried to back out and had a to call a tow truck to pull them out of the ditch. Most had to call another, more expensive tow truck that can hall semis, because the regular tow truck is unable to help a car that falls down there. That's how fucked up this driveway is.

Listen to me. I was born on this driveway, molded by it. I didn't back up a straight driveway on flat ground until until I was twenty two. I am the baddest fucking sherpa on this shitty little Everest. Hand me your keys.


Your mail always winds up where it's supposed to be. The USPS mail carrier on your route figured out all the little stuff the first few weeks on the job. The family at Apt 123 caught them as they were delivering one day, had a short conversation, and now they get only their mail and wave every time it's delivered. Nice bunch of people.

Every new person and new organization has to start from scratch. The Amazon couriers haven't done this before. If their annual turnover is only in the high double digits I would be surprised. Guess what? Every new guy has to figure that out, and they mess up a lot.

I think this is why the older people I know are so wistful for the good old days where the person at the store really knew who you were and really knew what they were doing and all that Leave it to Beaver stuff. That experience is unfathomable to me. Of course the clerk has no idea what they're doing. Of course you have to Google around and do everything yourself. Of course sometimes you get the wrong thing and no one will help you and you will be out of luck. That's how it works.


There are two basic facts at play here.

  1. The employer wants employees to be as fungible as possible to keep costs down.
  2. Doing the job well requires extensive domain knowledge only applicable to this one situation. There's no way to scale it.

They don't really play well together. Some ways to resolve this:

Compile all collective wisdom in a Great Wiki

Imagine if you wrote down everything you did at your job as you did it. Almost all of the ways things actually get done aren't written down, you just sort of found them out from somebody else who learned from someone else. Well, now they're written down. Now they can look it up in the Great Wiki.

To equal what someone would know after years on the job delivering packages in a neighborhood, the Great Wiki would have an entry on every house in the region. The first few days on the job would consist of the new hire studying all these facts. Some of them will be out of date when they get there, which will cause some mixups. Mis-delivered packages aren't great, but there are much worse disasters an organization can creation with this level of effort. Imagine:

"Yes, ma'am, we need your signature on every package. Why? Uh, well you know, so they don't get stolen," the delivery person says. "The system says code 131, 'probable family member with an addiction.'"

"Ellen's been clean three years. How do you know — no. What!? No."

"Let me just make a note of that in the system —"

"Why are you writing this down!?"

"You don't want me to make a note of that?"

"Why do you have this!? Stop writing! Get rid of it!!"

"The record is inaccurate. Do you want me to update it or delete it?"

"Delete it! Delete everything!"


"How do you know all about this!? How do you know all of this!? Where's Julio!?"

"Julio retired, that's what I'm here. I've read all about you, Mrs. Wallace, nice to finally meet you."

Contract out everything to the same local guys

In this situation and UPS and AMZL_US and FedEx all subcontract out to local people who stay around longer and can build up the knowledge to actually do things well. Maybe UPS doesn't like their current subcontractor, they can probably make do with their business from FedEx. If it really fails, and goes out of business, the other subcontractors will probably need to hire people who have been working the area.

I don't know how much UPS and FedEx contract out vs do in house, but I think there's a mix. The issue is that someone always wants to be The Emperor of All Things, and that requires having your own little army rather than borrowing someone else's.

Do a bad job, but cheaply

Pretty much what happens. Hope my packages get delivered the second time.