People more than strategy are key to fixing Royal Mail

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Royal Mail just isn’t working this peak season and it seems increasingly unlikely that group CEO Simon Thompson and the Communications Workers Union (CWU) can still find some middle ground.

This all comes at a time when the last mile is at the tail end of a small revolution catalyzed by the e-commerce behemoths Amazon (in the Western hemisphere) and Alibaba (in Asia). The last mile will never be as it was both in terms of the structure of shipments and customer expectations. Traditional mail is becoming a thing of the past, as is the personalized experience provided by the postie. Like it or hate it, we can expect machines to take over many of the onerous and labor-intensive tasks in the postal and parcel business.

Those players able to manage this change will succeed and those that cannot, will fall by the wayside, much as Polaroid ceased to become relevant when the photographic world went digital. But does this have to be bad news for today’s postal workers? The answer is ‘not necessarily’, although if things continue as they are right now, it is clear that there will be no winners at Royal Mail.

So, is there way to get things back on track and how could this look? First and foremost, nothing can be achieved without winning back the hearts of the posties. To coin Churchill’s phrase, it will take ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ to get Royal Mail working again. It is for this reason that it begins and ends with having the workers on board. Many readers will say, ‘you must be insane if you think that you can get the CWU on side’ and indeed, it will not be easy, but without achieving this, no tenable solution is possible.

How could this be realized? Based upon my experience, it is all about open and constructive discussion as well as inclusion. To give a concrete example: During one particularly difficult turnaround project, the company I worked for was losing close to 50 pence in the pound of revenue. At a town hall meeting at which all staff from top to bottom were invited, I showed our results and explained what our plan was. A key (and very difficult) part was a significant salary reduction for all the staff, management included. I made it clear that we were open to any better ideas and even created an advisory group consisting of the management team’s most vocal critics from among the workforce. Not only did we end up turning the company around, but we did this with full worker support, and to the point that the company grew to be the leader in its market, only a few years later.

Ian Streule of Analysys Mason says, “The workers and management of Royal Mail are rapidly approaching another significant question in the UK postal market – whether to adopt rapid digital transformations to improve efficiency, to target further changes to first class and/or second class services to achieve a long-term sustainable postal service, or to seek universal service funding from government.”

While there will be many strategic decisions such as the benefit of keeping Royal Mail and GLS in one group, the way to develop the postal operator’s infrastructure to best fit in with the new demands of the last mile, or even how the Universal Service Obligation should develop, nothing can work when the posties and management cannot or will not co-operate.

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