Saturday, October 24, 2009

Managing the mail

One of my more frequent big speeches is about the dire quality of some management and its remoteness from, and ignorance of, the real work that we all have to do. This has been reinforced by a doctrine of managerialism that has de-democratised work, thereby empowering (and enriching) managers and elevating the curious notion that generic management skills are more important than any expertise in the industry or service to be managed. It would seem that appointing the chief executive of the Football Association to run the British postal service was an example of just such folly. I am not surprised that there is now a major industrial dispute and I know where my sympathies lie.

Then I get a short email from Will ordering me to read this from the London Review of Books. It is brilliant. You should all read it too. Here is the voice of reality, a picture of the world that ordinary workers inhabit, it is about day-to-day life experience, something that mangers can seldom even imagine. Though the article highlights something else as well - not ignorance but mendacity.
According to Royal Mail figures published in May, mail volume declined by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by a further 10 per cent this year ‘due to the recession and the continuing growth of electronic communications such as email’. Every postman knows these figures are false. If the figures are down, how come I can’t get my round done in under four hours any more? How come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit-down or a tea break? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight I have to carry? How come something snapped in my back as I was climbing out of the shower, so that I fell to the floor and had to take a week off work?
He provides a simple answer:
Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeon-holes representing the separate walks, and from there carried over to the frames. This is what is called ‘internal sorting’ and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken over a two-week period in a number of offices across the region. Our office was one of them. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.

Who can honestly say that they have never experienced lousy decisions justified by dodgy data? And this can easily be made to happen if the real knowledge of the people who actually do the job, and who are often closer to the customer, is discounted, dismissed and labelled with words such as 'dinosaur' and 'luddite' or with derogatory clichés such as, 'people just don't like change'.

I once worked for a very good manager (there really are some you know). Whenever anything had gone wrong he had a simple maxim; "don't worry, I have friends in low places". It would soon be fixed. He worked on the basis of respect for those who did the job and saw his role as co-ordination not command. It is very simple. Most of the people who work on the front line are not obstacles, they are experts. Their knowledge is far more valuable than the snake oil of management theory. The denigration of the workforce and the elevation of the great talents who brought us the credit crunch into superheroes is one of the more unlikely episodes in a class war, one being waged, increasingly successfully, against workers, rather than by them.


CNH said...

Best thing I've read for weeks. Same applies in education - they take outdated 'management' ideas intended for a totally different situation then wonder why people get annoyed.

Friends in low places is what you need if you are interested in getting things done, as opposed to appearing to get things done.

The postmen haven't helped their cause however - more articles like the one in the LRB are needed. At the moment they are losing the PR battle and looking like Luddites.

Rabelais said...

'Most of the people who work on the front line are not obstacles, they are experts. Their knowledge is far more valuable than the snake oil of management theory.'

By the time I reached this line I wanted to weep with the relief of having read something of sense about work for the first time in ages. Thanks for that.

DorsetDipper said...

I'm not sure where all the bad managers are hiding. I've been in three different industries at different levels of management and just about all the managers I have worked with would agree with this post. Perhaps that's because I've worked in manufacturing and finance where the need to produce something customers are willing to pay for is paramount, and I've not worked for the government.

DorsetDipper said...

I have a vague notion that the postal strike is really about the funding of the pension deficit.

For this to be funded out of the current Royal Mail business can only be done through a tax on the workers. Economicallt, a privatised Royal Mail with pension commitments should be allowed to go bust, and the postal workers could go to work for other businesses who can pay them a proper wage (ie a market rate based on the value of their work).

So watch for the pension fund deal ...

The Plump said...

I'm not sure where all the bad managers are hiding.

Royal Bank of Scotland? The Phoenix Four?

You've been lucky, that's all. I have worked in both private and public sectors. I only encountered a few good ones and they were in the public sector.

The trouble is that the cult of the manager leads to the formation of self-congratulatory coteries that can do a lot of damage before they are finally brought to account.

Will said...

"The trouble is that the cult of the manager leads to the formation of self-congratulatory coteries that can do a lot of damage before they are finally brought to account."

'bringing to account' to be effective means wiping the fucking scuM out wholesale and that.

(or better still -- supersede the cunts by getting rid of the system that makes the cunts and gives the cunTs power in the first place).

stUpid Organisation makes peePle stupid -- stupid peePle don't make oraganisation stupid.

Anonymous said...

Andy Hornby was made head of HBOS before he was 40 on the strength of being a retail whizz kid at Asda and having used the same skills in HBOS.

That statement is so bizarre that it should not be believed but is true. It can only be true because common sense was ditched by people who wanted to believe what a given management theory told them, presumably that banking and food retailing are the same.

I usually suspect that if I encountered Will, I would cross the road as a matter of prudence, but he may have a point.

Tom Freeman said...

"stUpid Organisation makes peePle stupid"

Yep. It's like a corollary of the Peter Principle.

I'm managed by someone who, a few years ago, was perfectly competent at the sort of job that I now have. She's a nice and intelligent person but as a manager she simply has no idea what she's doing, which must hit her self-confidence.

This means she has to heavily lean on the canon of managerialist bullshit because it at least gives her some sort of system for understanding what she ought to be doing. It also makes her dependent on the more senior management for guidance, making her a mouthpiece for them rather than an independent mind.

So yes, it's a cult.

In the meantime, she's grown out of touch with the nitty gritty of the work done by the people she manages. It's rotten for me but it must be a horror for her.

The Plump said...

It's rotten for me but it must be a horror for her.

You have forgotten the other major factor in managerial delusions, narcissism. They think they are wonderful (and good looking). It is bliss; too stupid to realise that you are stupid and bloody well paid for being stupid too.

Neil said...

People are talking alot about the Royal Mail's imminent privatisation.

Which way do you think the future owners of the Royal Mail want its perceived value as a business to go before this happens - up or down?

You can work out the rest.

Anonymous said...

And yesterday Haddon Cave Q.C. reported that managerialism was responsible for the deaths of 14 RAF personnel when their plane exploded.

The Defence Secretary put up a performance of bumbling incoherence on Newsnight and BAE (the contractors) deny it was anything to do with them, anticipating a mega claim over their negligence.

Has anyone lost their well paid job? No. But 14 men died and 14 families suffered tragedy.

It's about time this got personal.

dana said...

truth! Thank You.

Two voices to add to the chorus:

Stanley Bing, on management
Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas? on working class wars