Why helping employees perform to their full potential is vital to the postal service of the future
19 May 2015
In May 2015, the postal business Whistl – formerly TNT Post – announced it was suspending its door-to-door delivery services in London, Manchester and Liverpool, and consulting 2,000 workers on redundancy. The move reportedly followed a decision by a potential investor not to fund Whistl’s expansion plans.
As well as being a personal tragedy for the employees involved, the incident provided a stark reminder of the challenges facing all players in today’s fast-changing postal market. While it’s relatively easy to identify the forces reshaping the global landscape of postal services, adapting to the resulting changes is far harder. And it’s made even more difficult by the fact that the disruption has further to run.
So, what are the forces at play? Well, in recent years we’ve seen a worldwide collapse in volumes of letters, as people switch to electronic communications like email and go online to access information such as bank statements. At the same time parcel traffic has surged as online shopping takes off.
For postal operators, this might initially have sounded like a case of ‘swings and roundabouts’. But that’s not how it’s turned out. The initial growth in online shopping focused on easily carriable – and often letter-box sized – items like books and DVDs. These types of content are now being downloaded over the internet, and the items people buy online are larger, often oddly shaped, and certainly not going to fit through the average front door.
All of this creates huge change for postal operators. More online shopping for larger items means more recipients not being in when items arrive, and more returns being sent back to suppliers. Many responses are being tried out – like setting up parcel lockers in each neighbourhood, incentivising people to receive other people’s deliveries, allowing householders to nominate a favourite neighbour, or switching delivery rounds to evenings and at weekends when more people are at home.
But such changes are incremental rather than radical – and involve postal operators tinkering with decades-old operating models and working patterns created for a different era. What’s more, developments such as 3D printing threaten further waves of disruptive change in the future. So to meet today’s challenges and be ready for tomorrow’s, postal operators need to go beyond incremental change, applying new tools to drive a deeper, more radical and more pervasive transformation.
This means embedding a new and more flexible performance culture, mindset and behavioural norms in a workforce that’s often heavily unionised, and widely regarded as backward-looking and resistant to change. However, my experience confirms that with the right tools and guidance, postal operators can transform themselves into agile, higher-performing organisations fit to face whatever the future brings.
The proposition that my PwC team has been using to achieve this is PERFORM – our toolkit for taking operational efficiency and effectiveness to a new level by renewing and reinvigorating workplace culture and relationships. On a recent engagement with a postal operator, we applied PERFORM across 40 local units where in-house efforts at transformation had failed. Within six months we’d turned round the performance of all of 40 units – and the improvement has been sustained since our team moved on. Within six months we’d turned round the performance of all of 40 offices – and the improvement has been sustained since our team moved on.
How did we do this? The core focus was coaching the existing managers to view their team not as a group of individuals, but as a pool of skilled resources to be allocated to appropriate tasks as – or even before – they arise. And there was a particular emphasis on having more productive, coaching-type conversations with team members, rather than the traditional command-and-control approach.
These changes were supported and enabled by two new resources. The first was more detailed data and management information than ever before on people’s work and performance. So if a member of the team said they couldn’t finish their delivery round in the allotted time, the manager could compare the workload with previous days and weeks – and have a balanced, fact-based conversation about how to create a better outcome next time.
The second resource was visual aids – including charts and ‘traffic-light’ indicators – to make individual and team performance more visible and comparable. By tracking both lagging and leading indicators, these aids also encouraged forward-looking conversations about ways to do things differently and better.
The results were dramatic. And they underlined that while PERFORM is designed to work in any industry, the specific conditions and challenges in the postal sector – including sweeping change, and a need to embed greater flexibility in a highly traditional workforce – were especially suited to the PERFORM toolkit. The same applies to many other areas of the logistics industry, where people work as teams and carry out tasks individually.
The future of postal services has never been more uncertain than today. And whatever happens, it’s clear they’ll need a workforce with the agility and flexibility to adapt at speed. My experience shows that PERFORM can help them achieve these qualities.