“A postal duty is, in effect, a four hour intensive workout, and it gets increasingly difficult the older you get. Any further pressure on delivery staff is likely to leave us suicidal.”
According to the Daily Telegraph, “American activist investors” – who are becoming the main buyers into Royal Mail – believe that the company “could execute deeper cost cuts and yield far bigger profits”.
Staff costs are one of the areas being looked at.
“The productivity improvement rate is really pretty low, given the amount of new technology at the company,” said a source. “Now 80% of mail is sorted by technology, yet the productivity costs have only come down marginally in comparison. The company could be far more aggressive on driving the costs savings through.”
We all knew this would happen. The pressure will soon be on to cut staff numbers and to increase workloads in order to improve productivity.
But I can tell you now that this is just not possible, at least where delivery duties are concerned. When Panorama did a programme about the Royal Mail in 2009, it arranged for former Royal Marine and military fitness expert Tony Goddard to test a duty. He was unable to finish it in the allotted time, saying that it was “unreasonable” to expect postal workers to do it five days a week.
A postal duty is, in effect, a four hour intensive workout, and it gets increasingly difficult the older you get. Any further pressure on delivery staff is likely to leave us suicidal.
However, there is some truth in the assessment. The productivity improvement rate is, indeed, pretty low given the amount of technology that has been introduced. There’s a reason for this. It’s called “Methods”.
This is the internal name for the modernisation programme which the company has been undertaking since 2009. It involves the scrapping of bikes and their replacement by trolleys: two postal workers working out of the back of a van using customised golf trolleys, carrying two bags apiece.
The ostensible reason for the new method is so that we can carry more packets: packets being the new growth area within the postal business. However, it is also considerably slower than using a bike. Just to give you a measure of this: my round used to take around three hours and fifteen minutes. Under Methods we are supposed to manage our rounds in four hours. That’s already forty five minutes longer than before. However, there is never a day when we can complete the round even in this time, often going as much as an hour over. In other words, the new method is at least a third slower than the old method.
It is also much more tiring. Using a bike we were constantly changing position: sometimes walking, sometimes scooting, sometimes cycling, sometimes freewheeling down a slope. All we do now is four hours or more of relentless walking, mile after mile: around twelve to fifteen miles a day. My hips and my back ache from the strain and all I can do when I get home these days is to eat my dinner and fall asleep in front of the telly.
Slowing down the work while making it harder: I wonder whose bright idea that was? The reason it’s called “modernisation” and not “a big pile of shit” is that it is being modelled through a computer. We’ve replaced an old technology – bikes – which were very efficient at delivering the mail, with a new technology – computers – which are very efficient at measuring the process. We’ve privileged the needs of the office over the needs of the job. Now you tell me which is more useful in an industry whose sole purpose is the delivery of mail?
It’s a pity they never thought to ask us posties. We would have told them that it wasn’t going to work. TNT – one of the rival mail companies currently experimenting with end-to-end delivery in some parts of London – do so using bikes, while Deutsche Post has recently been testing electric bikes on the streets of Berlin.
The reason the CWU went along with the new method is that it was supposed to take the weight off our shoulders. In fact it has done the opposite: it has put weight onto our shoulders, as in an effort to get the work done on time, many posties are now dispensing with the trolleys.
But the real measure of the insanity of this is that despite the fact that it was extensively trialled, and that it has consistently shown itself to be slower and more costly than the old method, it has nevertheless been rolled out throughout the country.
This is the reason why the productivity improvement rate is so low, despite the amount of new technology being deployed. If “activist investors” really wanted to improve productivity, then they could start by bringing back the bikes. After that, they might consider reducing staff numbers by getting rid of everyone who thought that “Methods” was a good idea in the first place. That includes Moya Greene.
The Royal Mail is undertaking a major modernisation programme at the moment. Gone are the old, worn-out, Victorian ways of doing things, to be replaced by new, sleek, 21st Century methods.
Gone are the traditional, old fashioned bikes, for example, in use for more than a hundred years, to be replaced by golf-trolleys.
Here are some of the many ways in which golf-trolleys have proved themselves more modern than bikes:
You have to walk with a golf-trolley. You cannot scoot, glide, pedal or push. You cannot relax on a downhill run and allow the bike to take the weight. Obviously this means you are much slower with a golf-trolley than with a bike, making the round that much longer. But it has the advantage that you are expected to walk at a steady four miles an hour, which means that the computer back in the office can calculate exactly where on your round you are supposed to be. See how modern this is? It means that the man on the ground is connected to a computer. And computers are very modern.
A golf-trolley has only two positions. You can push it, or you can pull it. This is unlike the bike, which has numerous positions. You can push a bike and park it. You can push from the right hand side or you can push from the left. You can leave a bike and walk. You can scoot a bike. You can use your left leg to scoot, or your right. You can get on your bike and pedal. You can pedal standing up or you can pedal sitting down. Or you can simply sit on a bike and let it freewheel down a slope. This is obviously wrong. The Royal Mail doesn’t pay its workers to sit on bikes. It pays its workers to work. This is why the golf-trolley is much superior to the bike. The work is much harder with a golf-trolley than it is with a bike. The Royal Mail workers go home much more tired than they used to do. They ache in every bone. See how modern this is? It means the Royal Mail is getting its money’s worth.
In the old days postal workers used to park up their bikes and do a loop. They would take a bundle of letters, walk up one side of the road, and then down the other. Then they would pick up their bike and cycle on to the next loop. The new delivery method is very similar. It is called “Park & Loop”. Except that instead of a bike, the postie now uses a van. This too is much more modern than a bike. Bikes don’t use diesel, whereas vans do. Bikes don’t give off Carbon Dioxide gases, whereas vans do. Bikes are cheap, whereas vans are expensive. Bikes don’t get caught in traffic, whereas vans do. Bikes don’t break down all that often, and when they do they are easy and cheap to fix, whereas when a van breaks down it has to be hauled off to a workshop. And the vans aren’t fixed in-house any more, they are fixed by a sub-contractor attached to the dealer. Meanwhile the Royal Mail has tied itself to the dictators and despots in the oil producing countries, and to a technology with hardly any future. You can’t get more modern than that.
Bikes are easy to park, whereas vans are not. Bikes can be parked on the pavement, whereas vans have to be parked on the road. Vans cannot be parked where there are double yellow lines, whereas a bike can. Bikes can be leaned against a tree or on the nearest wall, whereas a van has to spend time looking for a parking place. This is the modern way of going about things. If it isn’t difficult, it isn’t worth doing. It keeps the Royal Mail workers on their toes, having to think. It blocks the rest of the traffic up while the postie parks the van, causing more hold ups and more frustration, the way the modern world was meant to be.
Bikes can be used in a number of different ways: as a road vehicle, or on the pavement, as a trolley, as a scooter, as a work-station, as a place to sort and store your mail. There are several different parts to a bike. There’s the tray on the front for carrying bags, and the panniers on the back for carrying parcels. There’s the rack over the rear wheel which can be used to sort the mail. You can use the panniers for itemising the mail and helping you to remember. One pannier can be used for parcels still to be delivered, and the other for parcels which have to be returned to the office. This too is an advantage that vans and golf-trolleys have over bikes. Bikes are obviously too versatile for the modern world. Versatility is an old-fashioned virtue, like politeness or decency or cheerfulness or being concerned about our customer’s welfare. Such things can be dispensed with in the new, thrusting 21st Century world.
The new delivery method involves parking up the van, getting out the golf-trolley, loading it up with bags, and then doing a loop. There are two posties in the van, doing two loops simultaneously. This has the advantage that the two posties might be travelling at different speeds. One of them might be a slow and steady type who does everything by the book. The other might be a flyer. He might jog along, skipping over walls and obstacles along the way. One postie might be old, the other might be young. One might be worn-out the other might be fit. One might be cautious the other might be carefree. This too is a good thing. Posties love their job because they love working on their own. They like going at their own speed and not being obliged to other people. Who says posties should love their job? They should learn to hate it like everyone else.
The rule with the golf-trolley is that you have to take it everywhere you go. You cannot park it up and leave it, as you can a bike. A bike can be locked, whereas a golf-trolley cannot. What this means is that both hands are full. One hand is carrying the bundle, the other hand is pushing the trolley. You cannot rifle through the bundle as you are walking. You have to stop at the end of every path, sort through your bundle, and then deliver. This slows you up even more. This is a good thing. It means the postal worker is only doing one thing at a time. He is either walking or he is sorting through the mail. Postal workers are notoriously inept. They cannot walk, fart and sort at the same time. There are walking times and sorting times and farting times and each has its proper place. Walking while farting is not allowed either. In order to fart one must stop still until the gaseous emission has been satisfactorily expelled before continuing on one’s way.
Golf-trolleys were originally designed for carrying golf-clubs. So naturally it would have occurred to Royal Mail executives to use them for carrying the mail. The idea must have arrived on a golf-course. One day an executive was playing golf. It was a working day so of course he was playing golf. And he realised just how much weight his golf-trolley could take. A whole heavy golf-bag of full of clubs. He had his caddy with him. It was like a neon light flickering on in his head, a sudden burst of illumination. Of course! Postal workers are just like caddies really. Why not get them to use golf-trolleys instead of bikes? And he swung his six iron and landed straight on the green.
But the main advantage of the new delivery method over the old is that it doesn’t in any way take the worker’s needs into account. It was imposed from above, without consultation with the staff. It was devised in the drawing room, in the office and the boardroom. It was negotiated with the union and then presented as a fait accompli. It was either take it or leave it and take early retirement. No other choice was on offer. It doesn’t matter whether it is more efficient or less. What matters is that it has created a new disincentive for the workforce to care about their job. It has alienated the worker even more. It has reinforced the worker’s view of himself as a replaceable cog in a large and complex machine. It has reminded him of just how meaningless he is. This, of course, is entirely right and proper, because this is all he is, and the sooner he gets used to it, the better.
Welcome to the modern world.
“The Royal Mail is being slashed back, and it breaks this old postie’s heart”
From the New Statesman.
Read more here.
Last week all the new walk-sequencing machines in our area broke down. This meant that only about a third of the letters arrived at our delivery office on Wednesday. So on Thursday we had two days’ post to deliver, and everyone’s mail was late.
From the LRB blog.
Read more here.
Postal worker Roy Mayall loves his job – the fresh air, the early starts, even the Christmas rush. But this year it’s not quite so much fun. The service is being ‘modernised’, resulting in backlogs and delays. So will your cards get through?
From the Guardian.
Read more here.
New delivery methods threaten the integrity of the mail
It hardly needs saying, but Christmas is the busiest time of the year for postal workers. There’s a veritable assault of mail bearing down on us: more so this year than any year, as so many more people are buying on-line these days.
In previous years we took it in our stride. It was hard work, but we enjoyed it. We got on with the job and we got it done, to the best of our ability.
This year, however, things are different. This is due to the introduction of new working methods in a large number of delivery offices around the country. Quite why the Royal Mail decided to undertake a wholesale restructuring of our job just before the Christmas rush is anybody’s guess. It’s only one of a series of increasingly insane decisions we’ve been subjected to this year.
The process is called “revision”. First of all they got rid of our bikes and replaced them with vans: two posties to a van doing two extended rounds between them.
This is called “park & loop”. We park up the van, fill up our trolleys, head off in two different directions, spend 40 minutes or so completing the loop, then come back to the van to drive off to the next parking spot.
Now this would be fair enough if it actually worked, but it doesn’t. Someone somewhere has made a serious error in their calculations. The company has spent millions of pounds buying a brand new fleet of vans, but they are actually too small for the job. We have to carry our trolleys in the back, plus up to twenty-four ten kilo pouches, and then all the packets, both large and small.
And therein lies the problem. There’s not enough room for the packets, and, having dispensed with the dedicated packets delivery rounds which were part of the old method, there are serious backlogs building up in the offices as we struggle to get them out. The backlogs were already there before the Christmas rush started. I suspect that many people around the country won’t be getting their presents this year.
The next problem lies in the figures they’ve used to calculate the rounds. They took a sample week in June, a notoriously light month, and have extrapolated from that. On that basis they’ve estimated that we have around 26,000 items of mail passing through our office in any one day, when we all know it is more like 42,000.
What this means is that the sorting process takes a lot longer than their calculations allow for. We are allowed one hour to sort the mail into the individual rounds (known as “Internal Preparatory Sorting”) and then another hour to “prep” our frames: that is to slot the letters into the frame, into the sequence they will be taken out in. I never have time to complete this task, which means that most days there are at least six boxes of mail left unsorted under my frame, which are then “prepped” by managers or office staff while I am out on my round. So every day I come in to an already half-full frame of mail left over from the day before.
In this time we are also supposed to have prepped the door-to-door leaflets – usually referred to as “junk mail” by you, the customer – which we take out at the rate of 1/6th a day, and which can amount to anything up to six items per household. We are given six minutes to do this in when it actually takes more like 15 minutes. We are not allowed to leave the junk mail behind, which means that these days junk mail is given precedence over the normal mail, which quite often does get left behind.
That’s the measure of the Royal Mail’s priorities these days.
When the planners first came to the office to discuss the revision they made it quite clear that their aim was to reduce the workforce and therefore the number of man-hours in the office. When the revision was implemented it amounted to eight full time jobs lost. But so huge is the backlog of mail that’s been building up – at one time there were up to 26,000 items of mail, backed into a corner and filling up half of the office – that they’ve had to re-employ the eight full-time employees who had previously taken voluntary redundancy, just to clear it.
They’ve now agreed that the office actually needs five more full-time staff. But, here’s the trick: the new staff will be working on much less favourable contracts than the guys they are replacing.
Which, you might suggest, is the entire purpose of the exercise.
Christmas chaos in the Royal Mail. New working methods disrupt Christmas deliveries.
Last posting day
The last posting day before Christmas for second class post is the 18th of December. The last posting day for first class post is the 21st of December. Aside from this, did you know that during the last three weeks in December there is actually no difference between the two services? That’s because the normal “quality of service” targets for first class post, ensuring that 93 per cent of first class post is delivered the next day, don’t apply for most of December at all. Some cards and letters bearing first class stamps will still get there the next day but, for this period, the Royal Mail is fully entitled to deliver them the day after or, indeed, the day after that too. Pretty much whenever, in fact. So we might as well all save our money and stick second class stamps on the whole lot. After all, that’s how they’re going to be treated.
I have to say the fact that service targets for first class post don’t apply in December was news to me, despite me having been a postman for many years. But, given the endless stream of nonsense that flows down from our unseen senior management – a management more preoccupied with privatisation and profits than minor things like getting the Christmas post delivered – it certainly doesn’t surprise me.
Our postal system is in chaos and this Christmas it could easily reach breaking point. A combination of demoralised staff, local sorting office closures and the wholesale introduction of new and untried working methods could easily result in millions of items simply not getting delivered by December 24th. And that, I can honestly tell you, breaks my old postie‘s heart.
Being a postman in December used to be a wonderful job. You had to work hard – of course, you did – but as you stomped across the frosty pavements to the sorting office at 5am, steam blowing from your frozen nostrils, there was a real sense of doing something important. Yes, the overtime helped – it was Christmas, after all – but a real Dunkirk spirit set in. Every day huge amounts of mail would come in – up to 10 times the normal amount – and every day we’d get our heads down, our winter boots on and do our very utmost to make sure it was all delivered in time. And, by and large, it was.
This year, however, is going to be very different. It’s not only going to be the last Christmas I do my round by bike (confusingly, we call our rounds “walks”, even when we do them on a bike) but it’s also going to be the last one I do from the local sorting office in our town. Like dozens of others, it’s now due to close which means that next year we’ll all be based in one huge sorting office in the not-particularly-nearby city. Every morning, I’ll have to drive there to get to work and then drive back to this town in a van to deliver the post, before doing both journeys again, this time in reverse. Crazy, huh.
Compared to a bicycle, that certainly doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly, and I’m not sure it would make much economic sense either but for the fact that many of these local sorting offices are on prime, town-centre sites which, even today, are worth a fair amount of money. Back in the 70s, I have a distant memory this used to be called asset-stripping but these days, I’m told, it’s maximising total financial returns. Not sure where delivering the post fits into all this but then I’m not sure our management are either.
The battle for breakfast time deliveries, was lost long ago. These days, I don’t even start work until 8.40am and usually I’m not out on the road before 10.30am. Which means the lucky ones get their post mid-morning but those at the end of my walk don’t get theirs until mid afternoon. If something needs a signature, the chances of anyone being in at that time are, of course, pretty remote so, all too often, it has to come back with me to the local sorting office to be collected. People have got used to this but I don’t think they’re going to be anything like as understanding when that local sorting office closes and they have to drive to the city to pick up whatever it is.
And it’s going to get worse, thanks to the new working practices that are being rolled out all over the country. They can best be summarised as longer walks, longer hours, fewer full-time jobs, more casual labour.
In particular, you’re going to be seeing far more of something called “park and loop” which sees three or four of the old walks being done by two postmen in a van. We have all the post in the back – letters and packets – which, at predetermined stops, we then unload into those golf-trolley things. We then loop round, delivering the mail before coming back to the parked van and driving on to the next stopping-off point.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Will it work? No it won’t. In fact it is already failing as office after office are building up huge backlogs of undelivered mail. A friend of mind in a Northern office which has recently gone through this so-called “revision” process, told me that one day they had 26,000 undelivered items of mail sitting in the office waiting to be sorted, and it was only by re-employing the half a dozen blokes who had recently taken voluntary redundancy, that they were able to bring the backlog down to manageable levels again. Now there’s only about 5,000 items a day which they are failing to deliver.
The problem is that the management just haven’t thought things through properly. The theory was that we were going to take all the packets out with us. That’s the draw-back with bikes: no room for packets. But the trouble with the new vans is they are too small, so there’s still no room for the packets and, given that they have stopped the dedicated packets delivery-vans as part of the revision, sometimes the packets just aren’t getting delivered at all.
Meanwhile they have also introduced a new piece of massively expensive technology called a walk sequencing machine, a wonderful-sounding bit of kit which actually sorts the post in the order the postie is going to deliver them. The only problems are that, to do it properly, the post has to go through the machine three times and that each machine services several offices and potentially hundreds of individual frames. Also it can only sort standard sized letters, not packets. Packets still have to be sorted by hand, the old fashioned way. All of which means everything takes longer and your post gets later and later. Some postmen aren’t finishing till 4 in the afternoon these days. We used to deliver in time for your breakfast. Soon we won’t even be delivering in time for your tea.
This is already having a seriously unpopular knock-on effect during the Festive Season. More and more packets – or Christmas presents as I believe you call them – are going to be delivered at lunchtime or mid-afternoon when people are either at work or out shopping, if they are delivered at all.
Some unlucky people are going to end with more “Sorry You Were Out” cards than Christmas cards and their mood is unlikely to be improved when they traipse off to their local sorting office, where they’ve been picking things up for years, and suddenly discover it’s not there any more. Sorry but that’s the future.
I’d love to be able to come to some more positive conclusion but that’s just about impossible. Royal Mail’s management are more interested in their bonuses than they are with the long-term future of the Royal mail. They have forgotten the basics. Posties are early morning people who like the outdoors and who enjoy getting to know the folk – Granny Smith as we collectively call you – on our walks.
Now, we’re being made to keep office-hours, be stuck in a van for most of the day and won’t meet many people because most of you will be out by the time we eventually get round to delivering.
As for you, our poor, put-upon customers – I have a nasty feeling that wondering whether to stick a first or second class stamp on your Christmas cards could soon be the very least of your postal problems.
- Roy Mayall LRB blog
- Going Postal
- Roy Mayall | guardian.co.uk
Roy Mayall is a pseudonym for a postal worker who has been in the job for about five years and works in a delivery office somewhere in the south-east of England. He writes a blog at roymayall.wordpress.com
- The not so jolly postman | Roy Mayall | Comment is free | The Guardian
Postal worker Roy Mayall loves his job the fresh air, the early starts, even the Christmas rush. But this year it’s not quite so much fun
- Dear Granny Smith: A Letter from Your Postman by Roy Mayall
Dear Granny Smith: A Letter from Your Postman: Amazon.co.uk: Roy Mayall: Books