“Time to Pick” Countdown Timer

At the bottom of the picker’s scanner screen, there is a “Time to pick: x seconds” countdown timer with a large exclamation point icon to the left and a diminishing progress bar to the right. The “Time to pick” countdown timer resets for every new pick. It might read 29 seconds for a nearby pick. It might read 112 seconds for far away pick.

For me, when I am moving quickly and trying to make my picks as efficiently as possible, my scanner will still read “Time to pick: 0 seconds” many times throughout the day for any number of reasons. I find this discouraging.

What does “Time to pick: 0 seconds” mean? Amazon believes a computer algorithm is more adept at deciding how long it takes to make a pick than the employee. The employee cannot be trusted to make the pick in a responsible, timely manner without the scanner screen prompting the employee on each pick to move at a preset pace or fail company standards for each pick, giving the employee a pass/fail tolerance limit hundreds of times per day–a pass/fail imperative based often on factors beyond the employee’s control, creating an environment of mild neurosis.

It is a demoralizing journey when I have to walk a long way to a pick location, and the countdown timer reads “Time to pick: 0 seconds” before I even get to the destination. I still have to scan the location, rifle through the bin, obtain the item, scan the item.

The countdown timer is revealing in a number of ways. The employee has done her job diligently, yet the timer reads “Time to pick: 0 seconds.” How can this be? Good, hard work is not enough. This system removes agency from the employee who intends to do her job well. In fact, even when she is applying all necessary effort, diligence, and skill she can still be chastised by a nameless computer screen or a Production Assistant or Area Manager who might or might not know her name and whose name she might or might not know.

The company does not allow the employee to seek, discover, or explore her work potential on her own behalf, on behalf of her fellow employees, and on behalf of her employer. It coerces the employee to make rate through constant pressure and manipulation using a never-ceasing stream of messages and warnings. While Amazon has created a relatively efficient SDF8 production environment, I believe, overall, Amazon workers aren’t more or less efficient than any other workers. They are just more demoralized, hate their jobs more, and want to leave more than any other group I have worked with in other high efficiency environments.

The “Time to pick” countdown timer, for me, is a constant reminder of how little autonomy I am allowed to do my job well of my own volition, and how little trust the company grants me as a Tier One associate. If I were not thoroughly invested in improving the wages and working conditions of all SDF8 Tier One employees, the “Time to pick” countdown timer alone would be sufficient reason for me to find a new job.

If a picker is actually taking the time to look at the “Time to pick” seconds countdown timer for each pick, he is using time. Besides the above issues, it just seems counterproductive, a distraction, unnecessarily intrusive, actually inhibiting the ease and flow of good work.

There are many, many ways in which Amazon attempts to control every second of an employee’s day in the interest of production efficiency. Taking in the whole picture, which is difficult to do, it appears that many of these policies are actually antithetical to production efficiency when one factors in low morale and high turnover. I have suspected for a long time that Amazon is wildly successful in spite of misguided labor practices, rather than because of them. Amazon knows more about its turnover rate than anyone else, and it is obvious that the company does, indeed, think it is cost effective. However, it is not at all cost effective for SDF8 workers and their families, and these workers will want to balk at this way of thinking and ask Amazon to develop workforce policies in line with the Amazon Leadership Principles.