Chi, cheng, and friction at Amazon

In his only paper (as opposed to hours-long presentation), Boyd concluded that

According to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics one cannot determine the character or nature of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do so lead to confusion and disorder.”

In other words, to even stand a chance of reducing “confusion and disorder,” or “friction” as Clausewitz called it, you have to go outside the system.

It turns out one reason that Amazon seems to work so well is that it understands this principle. In “Amazon’s Friction-Killing Tactics To Make Products More Seamless,”  the company’s product management and engineering PMO, Kintan Brahmbhatt, gives several examples of where friction comes from  during product development and how to overcome it. All involve going outside.

Readers of Certain to Win will recognize another big Boyd principle, that of cheng / chi.


Cheng (Nebenpunkt) / Chi (Schwerpunkt) in war [Fig 17 in Certain to Win]

In fact, the biggest payoff from reducing friction or entropy in an organization is the ability to execute cheng / chi tactics. As Brahmbhatt noted

This is where you transform someone from being an occasional user to being a fanatic customer. To add the delight factor, look for counterintuitive patterns in your data.

And again, he gives several examples. As you’re reading these, also observe that it isn’t just chi (delight) but also cheng (“works as expected.”)  In other words, it has to “meet customer expectations,” and the article opens with an example where the potential for delight was killed stone cold dead by the thing not working. But that alone will leave you vulnerable to a competitor who not only gives them what they want but delights them as well.


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One thought on “Chi, cheng, and friction at Amazon

  1. Very interesting article.
    In fluid mechanics, friction can be thought of as two layers that are inside a fluid, parallel to and sliding by each other, with a neutral force perpendicular to each layer. The neutral force is usually thought of as gravity.
    In fluid mechanics, the cheapest way to fight friction is through a change in structure to improve laminar flow, i.e. distance between and angle of elbows in piping, as an example. The structure of the remote car didn’t change.
    A second way would be to change the internal forces, or culture of the fluid, so molecules slide by each other more easily, i.e. change from a SAE 30W oil to a 5W oil. The internal forces of the remoter car didn’t change. It needed a battery before his parents bought the car and still needed on after the child opened it.
    A third way would be to change the neutral force, so the force between the layers is less.
    This third way seems to be the prefered way of Amazon. In other words, dumb down the human, as to make the neutral force less. Someone needed to vertically install the batteries in the system and this was a #fail.
    I mean, his parents, as a center of gravity, knew or at least it seems likely to me that they knew that they were buying a toy that needed batteries. But they perhaps assumed batteries where included. As the saying goes: when you assume something you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.
    So the kid (“me”) receiving this produce was ignorant, but not dumb. Also, he didn’t observe his parents as asses nor himself as dumb.
    Maybe it could be said that he made a fortune “dumbing down” the customers on Amazon (I am one of those), so they didn’t have to think (the force perpendicular to the layers connecting the being of the car to the doing for the enjoyment of the child) about the system they were buying. A system that obviously (when you think about it) needs the vertical injection of batteries in order for it to be used.
    Thank you Amazon, I resemble (and am) your customer, and perhaps dumber for it :).

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