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There’s Madness in the Methods

December 5, 2013 26 comments

Deliveries are now made with trolleys Credit: ITV

“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.

Royal Mail Modernisation: Golf Trolleys Versus Bikes

August 23, 2012 9 comments

Modernisation

Modern workers with modern tools

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:

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

A modern means of transport

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.

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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.

8.

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.

9.

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.

Modernisation has put the snail in Royal Mail

July 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Bikes for postal workers are being phased out by Royal Mail, slowing down delivery. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

The amount of lost or delayed mail is no surprise – ill-conceived new working methods have slowed postal workers down.

It’s been a bad week for the Royal Mail. What am I talking about? It’s always a bad week.

First it comes in the form of a Which? report, stating 72% of its respondents had letters delivered to the wrong address, while 71% received their post at a time they considered late in the day. Only one in four received their letters before 10am, it says.

This doesn’t surprise me. In fact, what does surprise me is that anyone reports receiving any letters before 10am. It’s very rare for us to leave our office before 10am these days. Very often it’s more like 10.30am.

For those of you who are puzzled by this, the explanation is very simple. It is called “modernisation”. Modernisation for the Royal Mail means spending millions of pounds on a large number of high-tech “walk-sequencing machines“, which actually slow down the process of delivery. They do, however, remove any vestige of skill from the job; so while they are considerably less efficient at getting the mail out on time, they nevertheless have the distinct advantage that they undermine the workforce, allowing the company to hire more and more casual workers.

The same survey also reports that 51% of their respondents received a “Sorry you were out” card even though they were in – 6% said they actually saw the card arrive through the door without the postal worker stopping to knock. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reports that 120,884 complaints about lost mail were made in the first three months of the year: up 37% on the same period last year. The Royal Mail blamed the increase on disruption caused by severe weather conditions. A Royal Mail spokesman said: “This resulted in significant delays to mail services in some areas, and many customers logged complaints for ‘lost’ mail which were subsequently delivered.”

Thank God for those severe weather conditions, that’s all I can say. It has allowed the Royal Mail to cover up one of the most gigantic cock-ups in its entire history. I’m talking about a wholesale revision in working methods that was begun in a number of offices in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In fact I suspect that, if you could break down the figures into individual offices, you’d find that the vast bulk of lost or delayed mail in this period occurred in offices that were going through their revision at the time. The snow was a secondary issue in many cases.

To name some offices: Dundee, Kenilworth, Warwick, Formby, Herne Bay and Stratford upon Avon. The rest of the country is undertaking their revisions now. Most will have been completed by the end of the year. So if you are noticing a marked deterioration in the quality of your service, at least you know why it’s probably happening.

To be clear: the new working methods involve the scrapping of bikes, the restructuring and reassignment of rounds, the sharing of vans and a massive increase in the workload, all at the same time. Instead of cycling, posties are now expected to walk, pushing golf trolleys in front of them. Walking, of course, is slower than cycling, and pushing golf trolleys means you can’t walk and sort through the mail at the same time, which means you have to stop at every gate and look at your bundle before selecting out the mail for that address and then delivering it. In effect, they have slowed us down while expecting us to do more work.

And they wonder why things are going wrong? You can tell these new methods have been designed by people who have never delivered a letter in their lives.

And it is here, too, that we find the answer to the earlier question: why are posties leaving more and more of those “Sorry you were out” cards than they used to?

It’s down to the revisions again. The new methods demand adherence to a strict set of timings. Every step and every manoeuvre is timed and logged and processed through a computer. So an “attendance delivery” – when a postal worker has to knock on the door and wait for a response – was allowed exactly 57 seconds, no more, no less; and with more and more packages to deliver – up to 100 a day in some cases – many posties are feeling the pressure to cut corners and get everything done in as short a time as possible. Hence writing “Sorry you were out” cards before leaving the office.

The attendance delivery timings have been increased since the revisions were first introduced, by the way – along with most of the other timings – for the simple reason that during the first few months almost every revision turned into a complete disaster, with backlogs amounting to hundreds of thousands of items building up in many offices. Hence increased complaints about lost and delayed mail.

There is one positive note in all of this, however. According to the Which? report: while they received more than 500 items of correspondence about people’s experiences with the Royal Mail, the majority of them critical, many of the correspondents took time to praise their own postmen and women. The management may be incompetent, but at least us posties are still appreciated.

From the Guardian Comment is free. Read more here.

Royal Mail is not delivering

June 21, 2011 3 comments

‘Millions more have been spent on a fleet of new vans to replace the bikes the Royal Mail intends to scrap.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

As profits dive, it’s clear this management isn’t modernising, it’s running the company into the ground – but why?

 

Royal Mail’s profits fell from £180m in 2009 to £39m in 2010, a drop of around 78%. That sounds pretty disastrous, and is one of the reasons given for the impending privatisation of the company.

However, when you start to look more closely at the figures you begin to realise that all is not what it seems. For a start, the company did still make a profit, which is unique among public services. We don’t expect the police to make a profit, or the fire service or the NHS, do we? And I suspect that most of the British public aren’t at all worried if the Royal Mail makes a profit or not, as long as they get their letters delivered on time.

Historically the Royal Mail’s profits were used to subsidise the Post Office which is also an important public service. All of that will change, of course, when the Royal Mail is privatised and the link between the Royal Mail and the Post Office is broken. Once the Royal Mail is privatised, the Post Office will have to go its own way, and don’t be at all surprised when more and more rural post offices start to close, and the post office counter service becomes a small adjunct of Tesco, squeezed between the deli, the electrical counter and the pharmacy.

This shows you the mechanism by which the privatisation agenda operates. It splits a unified service into its constituent parts, hiving off the profitable bits, while keeping the unprofitable bits in the public domain. This is in effect a form of public subsidy. That which can make a profit is given over to the spivs and profiteers of the private sector, while the rest of us carry the can for the bits of the economy that can’t make a profit, thus threatening not only the particular services involved, but also the cohesion and unity of society as a whole.

Many blame the breakdown in Royal Mail profits on the incursion of new technology into the communications market. Or, as the Daily Mirror put it: “Royal Mail profits smashed by competition and Facebook.

This is simply not true. Most of the letters that people sent are still being sent. We might send birthday greetings to people we don’t know very well via Facebook, but how many of you have replaced the Christmas card list with a Facebook list in the last few years? Very few, I would suggest; none but the very young.

When you look at the real reason why profits are down it has virtually nothing to do with Facebook. It has everything to do with the Royal Mail spending vast amounts of money on a so-called modernisationprogramme that simply doesn’t work. £400m was spent on new machinery that actually slows down delivery.

We have two mail deliveries these days, instead of one. One is first thing in the morning, the way it used to be. The second is at about 9.20am in our office, which means full-time workers are now forced to take a break to wait for the lorry. So how is this “modernisation” exactly? By what process is it decided that a new machine which is slower than an old machine is actually more modern, just because you bought it more recently, or that having workers sitting around eating sandwiches is more efficient than having them delivering mail?

Millions more have been spent on a fleet of new vans to replace the bikes the Royal Mail intends to scrap. How crazy is that? To replace the world’s most energy-efficient machine, bar none with the polluting, inefficient internal combustion engine dependent on oil from the war-torn Middle East. To replace a tried and tested method of delivery in use for over 100 years, with an untried and untested method, that, everywhere it has been brought in, has been disastrous, as I’m sure people in a number of towns will testify.

Something very strange is happening here. It takes a radical redefinition of the English language to describe any of this as “modernisation”.

Also we have brand new uniforms. Who on Earth thought of that? Every single postal worker in the UK is being issued with a brand new set of clothes. New shirts, new trousers, new jackets, new caps, new waterproofs. And how much, exactly, did this cost, the refitting of an entire workforce? In this time of austerity and cutbacks, it seems, the Royal Mail judges fashion sense a more important issue than getting the mail delivered on time.

Finally, it is closing down hundreds of local delivery offices all over the country and relocating them to major city centre sites.

All of this is being done in the name of savings. It will cost less to maintain a single centralised office than a number of smaller offices. That’s the theory at least. But is it actually true? I’ve had my calculator out again and I’ve been working it out.

There are 50 workers each in the two offices in our area that are due to close – 100 altogether. It will take about half an hour each way to drive to and from the city. All of this has to be done in work time of course. We’re not counting the journeys each postal worker has to make to get to work and back. So that’s an hour of Royal Mail time spent getting us to and from the start of our rounds. We earn £8.86 an hour, so it will cost the company £886 a day, which is £5,316 a week, or £276,432 a year. Knock off days off and holidays, and the figure still comes in at around £250,000 a year. That’s a quarter of a million pounds spent on just getting the workforce to the start of the round every day.

How is that a “saving” exactly?

What kind of accountant adds a quarter of a million pounds to your wages bill and then describes it as a saving?

This is not to speak of the extra pollution of having hundreds of vans spluttering about during the rush hour or the cost in maintenance, petrol, tax and insurance, of running a fleet of vans. It’s not to speak of the traffic chaos in the city or parking problems around the new joint delivery office. It’s not to speak of the inconvenience for customers of having to travel eight miles to pick up their undelivered mail. According to the Royal Mail’s own figures this will be in the region of 100 a day in each of the two offices. I will leave it up to you to work out the figures on that.

All of this can only lead to one of two conclusions: either Royal Mail management is grossly incompetent, or it is running down the company on purpose, for some end that the rest of us have yet to be informed about.

Read more here.

Model of a Modern Royal Mail

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

 

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.

The not so jolly postman

December 19, 2010 5 comments

‘Kids love us. We’re like Father Christmas bringing presents to your door’

 

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.

Park and Loop

December 18, 2010 5 comments

New delivery methods threaten the integrity of the mail

Restructuring

Royal Mail will be spending £20m on speeding up Christmas mail before the next cold snap arrives. Photograph: Hartshead Services

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.

Priorities

Calculations

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.

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