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Commentary to the Japanese version of Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon

I had the privilege of supervising Japanese translation of Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon. With the permission of Diamond Inc., I am posting my commentary to the Japanese version of this wonderful book.

WorkingBackwardsBooks

Adopting the Amazon Way – Implications for Japanese Readers

Introduction

When I first read Working Backwards on Kindle, I strongly felt I want to contribute to releasing the Japanese version of the book.

As the book describes in detail, Working Backwards is a framework in which companies start with the customer and work backwards. I consider Working Backwards as one of the most powerful mechanisms at Amazon where I spent 11 years from 2007. I was responsible for marketing when I joined the company, and later took charge of Prime. Simultaneously, I served as the leader of CXBR (Customer Experience Bar Raiser). CXBR is a group of Amazonians who evangelize and promote adoption of Working Backwards. We conducted training and reviewed proposals on new services in the form of the press release, explained in this book. We aimed to bring about inventions and innovations starting with customers.

The reason why I consider Working Backwards such a powerful framework is the universal nature that allows any company to adopt it. The framework leads you to focus on customers and address their needs – be it conscious or subconscious – and create values. In addition to being universal, the framework is simple and easy to understand. I contacted Colin Bryar and Bill Carr and said releasing a Japanese version will let more Japanese readers to learn about the framework. Thanks to Colin, Bill, and publishers – Macmillan and Diamond Inc. – I had the opportunity to supervise translation of this book.

About Authors

The co-authors, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, were senior executives at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. They were directly involved in making key strategic decisions, and building cornerstones of Amazon’s new businesses and management mechanisms.

Colin joined Amazon in 1998 and spent 12 years at the company. From 2003 to 2005, Colin served as the Technical Advisor (TA) to Jeff Bezos, working literally next to the founder. This book explains TA as Jeff’s shadow, and Japanese readers may easily understand the role as the right-hand man or Chief of Staff. While Colin was Jeff’s TA, today’s central Amazon products and mechanisms came to life. Examples include Amazon Prime, AWS, Kindle, and Working Backwards.

Bill joined Amazon in 1999 and spent more than 15 years at the company. As Vice President of Digital Media, Bill started global digital businesses, an essential part of Amazon’s business lines today. Bill launched and managed what Japanese readers must be most familiar with – Amazon Music, Prime Video, and Amazon Studio that produces video contents.

Unique Value and Attraction of This Book

What makes this book, Working Backwards, uniquely attractive? First and foremost, this is an inspirational book about management practice. I believe this book provides deep insights to companies in Japan – regardless of nationality. This book is unique as various management mechanisms are explained by people who were directly involved in creating them. Working Backwards is the very first book written by core members of senior leadership in Seattle, providing specific and detailed explanation of these mechanisms. These mechanisms range from Working Backwards, to leadership principles, hiring, organization, communication and metrics. This book can shed light on such company needs as: “We want to create value to customers and drive innovation,” “We want to hire and develop strong leaders who realize our company mission,” and “We want to achieve long-term growth through effective metrics management.”

Second, this book tells detailed stories of these mechanisms and Amazon’s primary businesses. Examples include Amazon Prime, Prime Video, and AWS posting exponential growth. These stories are not intended to be mere “secrets revealed.” Rather, the stories describe challenges, decisions, and delight of people who delivered the tremendous results, in raw voices of individuals directly involved. The stories represent truth incorporating feedback from Amazonians listed in Acknowledgements. I personally know many of these Amazonians, and I can assure they are among those who played the most important roles at Amazon. Particularly impressive was the recommendation from Jeff Wilke, then CEO of Worldwide Consumer, Amazon. “Another Jeff,” who built and grew Amazon together with Jeff Bezos stepped down in March, 2021. Jeff Wilke is one of the legendary senior executives of Amazon sincerely admired by current and former Amazonians, including myself.

Relentlessness, Mechanisms, and Leadership

Working Backwards provides an abundance of insights for companies in Japan. They should be able to get a number of learnings from the Amazon Way. Here are examples of these learnings that I can think of – relentlessness, mechanisms, and leadership.

Amazon has a mission, “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” All Amazonians, including senior executives, relentlessly pursue this mission. Amazon has mechanisms that help realize the mission, underscored by day-to-day decisions and behaviors of Amazonians, all of them expected to be a leader.

Today, I work with leaders of various companies operating in Japan. One thing I noticed is there are a number of companies that have a mission that says “customers are our utmost priority,” “we are customer centric,” or “customer comes first.” Japan is a country where customers are genuinely cared about, and I think it is wonderful that companies have such missions.

However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these companies have management practice built around customers, or innovate products starting with the customer. Where are the gaps?

A great corporate mission fails to drive people if it is only written at the corner of the website. All leaders, including senior executives and employees, need to relentlessly focus on the mission. This book provides great case studies of how Amazon’s mission is used in daily decision making, starting from the first chapter. Companies need to create a mission that excites employees and wins empathy. These inspiring missions spread in the organizations if they are discussed daily and lived by employees.

A good example of the mechanism is the hiring process. This book introduces Amazon’s hiring mechanism, comprising hiring criteria and interview methodologies. The hiring criteria includes Leadership Principles that start with “Customer Obsession.” The interview process adopts behavioral interviewing technique. The mechanism ensures Amazon hires talents that it looks for. Let’s look at other companies that have a similar corporate mission stressing customer-first. How many of them explicitly use the hiring criteria assessing behaviors demonstrating customer-first? How many of them dive deep into specific examples of those behaviors in the interview process?

Strong leadership is imperative in realizing the mission. All the leaders need to act as an owner of the mission and overcome difficulties to make it happen. In Japan, leadership as English term is frequently translated into “power to lead people” or “ability to provide directions.” The truth is, leadership is a complicated notion hard to explain in just a few words. This book specifically explains principles expected of Amazonian leaders, and how leaders use principles as criteria for their decision making.

How Readers Can Put Amazon Way into Practice from Today

I hope this book will increase opportunities for readers in Japan to learn from the Amazon Way. Amazon’s management practice includes the framework of working backwards, and mechanisms that effectively worked at Amazon in various areas. I believe companies can get valuable implications by experimenting with just one or two suggestions in this book.

As Amazon’s Leadership Principle suggests, leaders are not limited by “not invented here.” Companies can take a valuable first step by learning from the idea that worked successfully at Amazon. The ideas do not necessarily work immediately. As stories tell in this book, Amazon experienced a number of failures and only after trials and errors came a big success. I believe companies in Japan can make their corporate missions a reality by experimenting with ideas, overcoming challenges with ownership, and relentlessly executing them.

It would be my pleasure if this book will help today and future business leaders in Japan invent on behalf of the customer. I look forward to seeing them create values that the world has never seen.

Profile of Ken Kasegawa

Ken Kasegawa is a digital strategy and marketing consultant and the Founder and Representative Director, Customer Perspective, Inc. Ken also serves as Visiting Professor at Faculty of Data Science, Musashino University. Ken joined Amazon Japan in 2007, and spent the next 11 years at the company, as part of Japan management team. Ken served as Vice President, Consumer Marketing and later as Vice President, Prime. Ken evangelized and promoted the mechanism of Working Backwards as Japan leader of Customer Experience Bar Raisers.

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