September 2010

Is the concept of a mail room still alive?

It certainly was when I came across Jeannie.

She was the mail room supervisor for the HQ of a large unitary council, an office building with about 1,000 staff on site.  The mail room and the printing unit were both in the basement, and apart from any functional merit the location was nicely symbolic of their status in the organisation.

The mail room dealt with all the incoming and outgoing mail for the council and a couple of tenants they had in the building.  Apart from the routine flows it handled major postings produced by the printing unit like the 250,000+ annual council tax demands.

Jeannie approached me for some help in a pretty desperate mood.  She and her team’s self-esteem was about as low as it could get.  They saw their users as the enemy rather than their customers.  And Jeannie summarised the “enemy’s” perceptions of herself succinctly – “They call me the bitch in the basement”.

It wasn’t difficult to see how they’d reached this state.  For an hour in the morning and then again in the afternoon their workspace was heaving with irritated clerical staff from all over the building looking for mail expected but not arrived, hunting down their own incoming mail, complaining  that stuff had been placed in the wrong pigeon hole, demanding outgoing mail went first class, delivering un-notified trolley loads of outgoing mail minutes before the Royal Mail deadline.  It was chaotic.

Not surprisingly Jeannie was at her wits’ end.  She could only see the problems in terms of what “they” did and that was all about their inadequacies.

The first small battle won was to persuade her that the “enemy” were in fact customers, that without prejudging it what was probably wrong was how the work was done rather than the people, and – biggest challenge of all – that she had to work with those customers to improve things and provide a better service, which at the end of day was all she wanted.

After some discussion about who should be on the improvement team Jeannie and one of her people worked with three customer representatives over a period of some weeks to define and measure the problems, identify the root causes, brainstorm possible solutions and work out what should be done.

Jeannie was all for implementing the changes over one weekend, issuing an instruction to customer departments and then just using the new procedures.

I persuaded her that this wouldn’t work and proposed an open meeting with all the customers to discuss her team’s findings and get their buy in to the changes.  She was apprehensive about the response but said she’d be willing provided I presented what they’d found.

It took all my skills to convince her of the importance of her and her team presenting their conclusions.  I was a facilitator not an expert in her work.  With a lot of handholding she and her team agreed they’d each speak.

Come the day the customers were there in force including the middle age woman who, in our meticulous preparation, Jeannie had identified as “the one who’s going to cause trouble if anyone is”.  She sat in the middle of the front row, arms folded.  No visible response to anything that was said.

At last the presentation was complete.

“Any questions or comments?” asked Jeannie as agreed.

The trouble maker stirred.  “I’ve worked here seven years,” she said “and this is the first time anyone’s asked me what I think.  This is great.  I think we need to do it.”

The rest of the story hardly needs telling.  With the (ex-)trouble maker on side everyone else was equally positive.  Even better, they came up with another good idea (customers do) – a mail users group.

When the last customer left the room Jeannie and her mail room staff were as near to walking on air as I’ve seen people be.

The last I heard they were keeping up the basic measurements of performance they’d agreed with their customers.  And the user group had taken on a life of its own, most recently getting a police officer in to talk about security at a time when a number of animal rights groups were threatening public bodies with mail bombs.

And the mail room staff? – happy with their work, and delivering a great service.

The sceptic in me says that the more customer service standards an organisation has the less chance of them providing truly good service.

Contrast John Lewis’s “Never knowingly undersold” with, for example, the list of 40 detailed statements on a major English county council’s web site (“We will greet you warmly when you arrive…We will aim to ensure the decisions and actions we take today guarantee a better quality of life for everyone now and for generations to come”…and so on).

Now, anyone in reach of a Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) branch in the UK – majority shareholders you and me – will probably see advertisement hoardings promoting one of their 14 customer charter promises.  You can also see them on their web site.

I have no quibble with the principle of setting out the standards you aim to reach and RBS do at least say they’re going to publish a report every six months so you can see how they’re doing.

But the language of these things is instructive.  Have a look at some of the things this bank promises.

THEY SAY We will extend our opening hours in our busiest branches – By the end of 2010 we’ll have over 80 branches open on Saturdays, plus selected branches will open early in the morning or late in the evening

IT MEANS 86% of our branches will be closed on Saturdays [RBS say they have over 650 branches throughout the country.  “Over 80” could mean at best 89]


THEY SAY We will aim to serve the majority of customers within 5 minutes in our branches – This year we’ll introduce a new queue busting programme in our busiest branches to ensure every available member of staff is out serving customers during busy periods

IT MEANS 49% of customers in our branches may have to wait for more than 5 minutes before being served


THEY SAY We will provide you with friendly, helpful service whenever you deal with us. We’re aiming for 9 out of 10 customers to rate our service helpful

IT MEANS We will find it acceptable if 10% of customers do not find our services helpful


THEY SAY We will provide a 24/7 telephone banking service – Our call centres are UK Based and we’ll always give you the option to speak to a real person

IT MEANS Contact with our call centres will always begin with an automated set of options you have to choose from


THEY SAY We will work with you to keep you safe when you bank online with us – We provide free market-leading enhanced security software for all online banking users, and we’ve published our new Online Banking Security Promise

IT MEANS We will provide the same levels of security for online banking as in our branches even though it’s much cheaper for us than face to face contact  [Free security software should no more be a privilege than a secure safe in a branch]


THEY SAY We pledge to stay open for business if we are the last bank in town to ensure a local banking service is available – We’ve already identified over 100 ‘Last in Town’ locations where we’ll continue to provide a local banking service

IT MEANS We will keep retail branches open if they have a local monopoly


THEY SAY We will actively support the local community in which we live and work – We will do this by creating a community fund. In addition, we’ll offer all our employees a day off for local voluntary work with the aim of providing more than 7,000 days each year to community volunteering

IT MEANS We expect only 25% of our UK retail employees to take a paid day off to do local voluntary work each year [RBS has 28,500 employees in its UK retail operation– annual report 2009]


THEY SAY We will resolve customer complaints fairly, consistently, and promptly – We are aiming for 75% of customers to be satisfied with the way their complaint has been handled

IT MEANS We find it acceptable if 25% our customers who complain are dis-satisfied with the way we have handled their complaint


THEY SAY Twice a year we will publish the most common areas of complaint.  And we’ll strive to address the causes

IT MEANS We’ll strive but we don’t promise to remove the causes of customers’ most common complaints against us

Measurement can be a great thing but at the end of the day whose service do you value more – John Lewis or your bank?

How someone who was functionally illiterate could ever become a storeman in a housing depot was beyond Dan.

Dan was a facilitator charged with supporting teams in a large rural housing association to improve their own work.

The association had begun their improvement journey by identifying what the CE chose to call “critical business issues” that were clearly a problem.  The management team’s approach to prioritising action was fairly basic – if a senior manager thought there was a problem, that’s where they turned their attention.

To start with they’d concentrated on office-based processes – re-lets of vacant properties, rent arrears and recruitment.

It wasn’t too long before someone suggested they turn their attention to the operational side of the business – housing wardens and repairs and maintenance.  Both were part-unionised and there’d been some apprehension about the reaction of the workforce.

As often happens, one manager was more enthusiastic than others and the maintenance manager asked for some work to be done on stock control in his four widely dispersed depots.  He didn’t have the data to prove it but he was convinced they were carrying far too much stock.

Dan did a lot of preparatory work in setting up his first “manual workers” RIE – much more than the guidelines said.

He paid special attention to the make up of the team who would spend a week confirming the problems and resolving them.  He was adamant that the team include a clerical assistant, one of the craftsmen who used the depots as a base, and one of the storemen who received and issued stock.

George was the storeman nominated to join the team.

He’d been very quiet in the planning meeting two weeks before the RIE itself but that happened sometimes.  It often took a while for people not used to the genuine empowerment of the process to realise they really were free to come up with a solution that management would implement rather than challenge.

As usual, Monday morning of the RIE week was spent explaining the process the team would use.  By the lunch break Dan couldn’t help noticing that George was not only the one member of the team who was still silent but had sat most of the morning with his arms folded avoiding his gaze.  A regular Mister Grumpy in fact.

Dan managed to get one of the depot supervisors who joined them for lunch on one side.  “What’s wrong with George?” he asked. “Has the guy got a problem with me do you think?”

“Er,” the supervisor said, obviously embarrassed, “did no one tell you?  He can’t read or write.”

To say this was a challenge was an understatement.  Not only did it mean all the care Dan had given to the make up of the team had missed a fundamental problem but it now seemed impossible that George could participate on an equal basis.

The whole week was based on the team gathering information (much of it written), analysing the numbers involved, mapping the existing processes, drafting possible improvements and writing up the way ahead.  The room they were working in would be covered in flip chart paper and Post-it notes by Tuesday.

Dan’s first stroke of luck was that the supervisor knew one of the other team members – let’s call him Harry – was one of the few people in the organisation who was aware of George’s problem.  The second stroke of luck was that the week worked by team members dividing into pairs to investigate the potential problems and solutions.

So after Dan had a quiet word with Harry, that was why George was paired with him for the whole week.

Somehow it worked.  Using the excuse of seeing a depot in operation Dan went with them on one of their visits on the Tuesday, when the team were dispersed finding out the problems at the workplace.

The depot wasn’t George’s and surprisingly he turned out to be a dab hand at seeing and commenting on problems – where stock was located, the inefficient layout of the front desk, the health and safety hazards outside (put bluntly the depot was a tip), and much besides .  His powers of visual observation more than made up for his inability to write them down.

The upshot of the week was that on the Friday morning the team presented a cracking set of solutions to improve stock control.

They also urged management to tackle some other issues outside their remit they were concerned about.  One of these was the state of the depots George had graphically commented on during the Tuesday visits.  Dan had explained the 5S process to the team – what he called a sophisticated tidy up time [see my earlier blog post] – and they urged that this be tried.

Their manager responded positively and asked the team on the basis of their observations which depot should be done first.

To Dan’s amazement, George spoke up and volunteered his own depot for the pilot.  Dan was on the point of finding an excuse to suggest somewhere else when he pulled himself up.  Of course it could be done.  5S was a team activity and based significantly on trained observation of the work environment.

To cut a long story short the pilot worked well – pictures of a proud George in immaculate surroundings appeared on the housing association’s web site – and they went on to successfully “5S” the rest of their depots and offices.

What Dan never discovered was how George had managed to sustain a job for so long without being able to input data to the PC or read  stock lists and requisition forms.

Not so long ago I was walking home with my partner just after 11 p.m. one Friday from a pleasant visit to the cinema in a well-off medium sized UK city that shall remain nameless, although my experience will be recognised by readers across these British Isles.

The main drag is a wide and even architecturally distinguished street and was busy with mainly young people out for the evening.

In sequence  as it happened we

  • had to step round a mixed male-female group probably in their 20s engaged in a loud and apparently alcohol-fuelled conversation where the adjective “fucking” (sorry, but if I hear this frequently in the streets at all hours why shouldn’t you have to face it in the privacy of your own web browser?) floated out above the general hubbub
  • swerved to avoid a splash of vomit by a shop door
  • ditto a broken bottle next to (not in) a waste bin
  • got bumped by a youth proceeding in a stagger with his pals along the pavement (“Sorry love” he called over his shoulder to my slightly shaken partner)
  • passed a small group of uneasy looking pensioners waiting in a bus shelter trying to appear inconspicuous , and
  • spotted a middle-aged man urinating against a wall in a side street.

That probably not untypical experience came to mind when I read a report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary called Antisocial Behaviour – stop the rot.

My experience was trivial compared with some of the behaviour that the report rightly calls this blight on people’s lives.

The main thrust is that the police response to this sort of stuff, already mixed at best, is what gets cut in hard times but mustn’t be.

Coming at it (obviously) from a police perspective the report identifies three things that work:

  1. briefings on anti-social behaviour for all staff likely to deal with the issue (including neighbourhood, response and CID officers)
  2. tacking what is happening locally using data and intelligence
  3. problem-solving capacity in neighbourhood policing teams.

And it says two things tend not to work:

  1. graded police response systems that prioritise calls for attendance or non-attendance
  2. lengthy partnership processes.

There’s an interesting diagram in the report showing the relationship between harm and frequency of different sorts of anti-social behaviour (you may need to click on it to read the small print).

Just think of the partnership aspects of some of these.  Apart from the police they can involve

  • intimidation – registered social landlords (RSLs)
  • race hate – local authority, RSLs (again), Equalities and Human Rights Commission
  • noisy neighbour – local authority: environmental health, social services
  • drunk – licensing board, NHS, ambulance service
  • teens – education service, social services
  • vandalism and litter – local authority: environmental services
  • abandoned vehicles – Highways Agency, local authority: transportation, environmental services.

The list is partial.  And all of course potentially involve other players in the criminal justice system.

The report says there are some worrying indications that some partnerships are much less effective than accepted wisdom would have it citing:

  • significantly variable standards of service, with some delivering only marginal benefits
  • some are focussed on working together, not working for the public
  • some focus on strategy rather than delivery
  • many interventions take significant amounts of time to be delivered
  • an escalation of interventions, coupled with a culture of meetings, means that some problems are not gripped and as a result victimisation continues
  • the focus in many is on the strategy and process rather than the victim’s experience
  • there is little in the way of testing the value for money in approaches undertaken.

HMIC inevitably link this to community safety partnerships but to this old hand all these characteristics ring true of much partnership working across the public sector.

The report concludes that there are two alternative approaches to this blight.  One it characterises as damage limitation, which would include better partnerhip working.

The other it describes as

an early intervention strategy, similar to those in health and education sectors. It will require reform of police availability and a refocusing on what causes harm in communities, rather than what is or is not a “crime”, or what can be managed out of police systems.

To me that sounds like a need for even more effective partnership working, and not only across the public sector – not to mention trying to get to the root causes of the various behaviours.  Big society and localism, here we come.

Footnote: quote from Sir Denis O’Connor chief inspector of constabulary on BBC TV today – “Parts of town centres are now being left in the evening as surrendered territory”

Dave had just been appointed chief executive of a county council in, shall we say, the South of England.

He was an internal appointment.  He’d been a traditional director of finance, a safe pair of hands for a number of years but frankly not that inspiring.

If he hadn’t realised it himself, the leader of the council made it clear on day 1 that he was going to have to raise his game to meet his (the leader’s) aspirations.  It wasn’t wholly clear what those aspirations were except he’d worked in the private sector where things in his view were a whole heap better.

As it happens, a few days later the PA Dave had inherited was taking him through the incoming mail to steer him in the direction of things he ought to be doing.  She paused at an invitation from the local chamber of commerce to their annual leadership lecture.  It was, she suggested, a useful place to network with the great and the good from the county’s business community.

She didn’t bother to tell him who was giving the lecture so he was surprised on the night to find himself being addressed by the CEO of a motor components company with a not inconsiderable reputation for turning round this spin-off from the wreckage of the UK car industry.

Unexpectedly, he found himself inspired by a story of major achievement in an industry he’d thought dead and gone.  Despite the gap between making vehicle components and delivering public services he sensed there might be something in this that would allow the leader’s vague aspirations to be met.

Over drinks afterwards he asked the CEO where he should go to see this achievement at its best, fully expecting to be offered a tour of his own company.  Without hesitation, the CEO said “The Toyota plant in Derby”.

That wasn’t the answer he’d expected but to cut to the chase a trip was arranged and he spent the day in Derby being given an overview of the Toyota Production System and a look round the plant.

It took a while for the import of what he’d learned to sink in but when it did he had one of those “light bulb” moments when something clicks and the world is re-arranged for you forever.

The thing that did it was the famous (some said infamous) Toyota rule that anyone on the production line can stop it if they think there’s something wrong.

Like most of what had come out of Japan to improve work (beginning with Quality Circles) this was misinterpreted for a long time by those Brits who were aware of it – their reaction ranging from “It’s a con” through “They’re crazy” to “It’ll never work here.  The guys’ll be stopping the line all the time”.

Of course, what lay behind the headline was the philosophy of “Accept no errors.  Create no errors.  Pass no errors”.   The company expected the line to stop frequently when production of a new model was starting up and the system was learning. But it was hardly ever needed once production was flowing efficiently and effectively.

What Dave took from it was the empowerment and trust it implied, a million miles from the command-and-control and blame culture of British work.  And what’s more Toyota were doing this with people who’d come from traditional British industry and had a lot to unlearn.

Why couldn’t the same principle work in his council?

His first instinct was to employ experts to make the improvements needed.  But he’d been uneasy about the cost and perceptions of that.  At Toyota, everyone seemed to be an expert in improving their own work.  Now he realised what was needed was to provide people with the understanding and support to do that in the council.

What happened after that is another story, and a long one at that.  As he came to realise, and often said, “The good stuff is never easy”.

But it was that light bulb moment which was the first step on the never-ending journey of improvement.

They say timing is everything. 

The RSA (Royal Society of Arts) couldn’t have forecast a coalition government when they sponsored an enquiry by the 2020 Public Service Trust back in 2008 into

how our public services can respond to the significant challenges of the next decade.

The Trust brought together a fair wodge of the (mainly metropolitan) great and the good around public services.  Their final report was launched two days ago.  I watched the part of the live feed from a sunny Scotland that bandwidth and BT didn’t freeze for me.

Their conclusions in what for me is very much a curate’s egg of a report?

We’ve reached what they call a moment of discontinuity with major costs looming of meeting the needs of an elderly population and abolishing child poverty.  Public services as presently delivered can not deal with issues of inequality.  Many “social outcomes” of those services are still disappointing.  Public sector productivity has fallen over the last ten years.  The Beveridge model has served Britain well but 60 years on, a reassessment of public services is needed.

Their prescription, summarised, is a shift from public services as deliverer of social security, to a new culture of what they call social productivity:

a new deal between citizen, society and the state (that) rejects both old statist models of universal service delivery and the new public management models of consumerism.  Instead a new settlement for public services should be based on the principle of social citizenship.  As citizens we should have a duty to contribute as well as a right to receive support – responsibility and reciprocity are essential characteristics of a more resilient society.

They say, correctly, that some of this is already happening (it’s always been there) but needs to be encouraged.

For that we need shifts in culture, power, and finance.

They identify three requirements of those who make public policy (I use their language even though I don’t like it):

  1. open and honest engagement with citizens and the workforce about the scale of the challenge facing public services, and how to respond to this
  2. a clear strategy for building social capacity is needed
  3. local accountability should be encouraged so that reform has genuine local ownership and control.

Interestingly, and despite political devolution, there’s not one reference to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland even though their public policy makers, not Westminster’s, have the major influence over local services.

There’s some reasonable stuff here and those with a vested interest are already claiming the conclusions as their own – central government because of the Big Society (I wouldn’t be too sure if I were them) and local government because of the emphasis on local solutions (I definitely wouldn’t be too sure I were them).

But you need to get past some of the convoluted language (“We would welcome introduction of a measurement framework that captures broader measures of social value as a catalyst for social productivity”).  And despite the number of “commissioners” and the length of their deliberations some of the report veers towards what a former senior civil servant I know calls applehood and mother pie.

The big question for me is “How?”

The report doesn’t paint a practical picture of what public services might look like in 2020 and I find it difficult to visualise that.  And there is absolutely no reference to other countries.  Have we nothing to learn from New Zealand, the USA, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Japan or the BRIC countries?

Most of all, I’m sceptical of the ability of government to fundamentally change some of the characteristics  that seem to be hard-wired into our societal DNA.  And to achieve that in only ten years?…

Jasminder was the chief registrar (of births, deaths and marriages) in a northern industrial city.

Her council had suffered under an administration widely touted as incompetent.  A new administration had had a clear out of senior management.  The new chief executive was given two targets – the council tax had to come down and services had to get better.

The CE decided that continuous improvement was the way to do it and after some early struggles a training programme was put in place for middle managers.

Jasminder was one of those who “got it” – many didn’t.

She reflected on the service she provided.

At first it didn’t seem there was much scope for improvement.  Basic processes and targets were prescribed by law and carefully monitored.  The size of the market was fixed – she couldn’t increase the number of births, deaths or marriages.  Births and marriages were (usually) accompanied by much joy but there wasn’t much scope to delight the customer when a death was being registered.  And while her service had a monopoly on registration, the one area with some discretion about level of service – marriages – was in competition with many other venues, religious and secular.

She did what she’d been trained to do – get her staff together to explain the need to cut costs and improve services and the council’s new approach to improvement.  If anyone was going to do it, it had to be them.

They used the techniques she’d been taught to analyse the range of potential problems and collect some basic data about each.  One of her registrars suggested seeking customer views – something they’d never done before.  The biggest issue emerging was that the service, although competent, was not seen as a positive experience.  The whole place, at the back of the town hall, was dowdy and unwelcoming.  The marriage room was especially criticised.

With budgets tight there was no scope to bid for money to do the place up but again the improvement disciplines focussed their minds.  A brainstorm led to the idea that value could be added for wedding parties, which should increase income and allow the whole area to be refurbished.  One hitherto silent clerical assistant suggested doing up a small patch of ground outside that could be used for wedding photos.  A local florist was approached to replace the tacky plastic flowers in the wedding room with a welcoming spray in return for a discreet card advertising his services.

When I last visited the place had been transformed.  It was light, airy and welcoming.  Jasminder and her team had the data to show how the number of marriages (and income) had increased and were alert to trends which might suggest a problem.

But best of all there was a palpable buzz about the place.  The staff had taken ownership of the service and were clearly enjoying their work.

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