Saturday, October 13, 2018

Memo to Canada Post: Scarcity and fear will not grow a healthy corporate culture

Regardless of whether Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers reach an amical, mediated or arbitrated settlement, with or without a work stoppage, the deplorable culture of the corporation has to undergo a complete transformation.

Debating and voting and even striking, or enforcing a work stoppage based on the specifics of wage parity, dental plans for retirees, specific formulae for imbursement on the new substantially higher daily parcel deliveries for RSMC’s* or whatever specific clause that might motivate the vote of particular employees…
any or all of these will only serve to encrust the veneer of corporate respectability on a deeply dysfunctional corporate body that as recently as only a year or two ago called the company One of Canada’s Best 50 Companies.

After thirteen years of full-time employment with the company, and having retired within the last month, I write this from a perspective of sadness, and deep empathy for all Canada Post workers. They are caught in the web of a vortex whose origins date back decades to a time when the labour movement was both vibrant and, with the benefit of hindsight, could be legitimately targeted as “nuclear” and filled to the brim with some sort of labour-movement hormone/hubris far more powerful than testosterone.

Over the last several decades, however, that “labour” power has so shrivelled to what can now be termed “labour ED”. One can only imagine the scene at the current negotiating table; there are two competitors how have contempt for each other crawling around on the floor blindly grasping for scraps of “benefits” (or “cost cutting”) amid a tsunami of technological changes that have impacted retail and communications strategies and tactics of both domestic and corporate clients of the postal service. A minor ‘win’ here, a minor ‘loss’ there and both sides are trying to satisfy a different political “base’s” appetite from what the company portrays as a dry well an empty pantry and a red-ink-filled profit picture.

Trouble is.. the well and the pantry can be more appropriately and accurately ascribed to the shared culture in which both unions and corporation seek to continue to exist.
And that culture and its community, seen from both sides of the river that struggles to flow between their members is seen to be drying up. Scarcity of letter mail is part of the reality. However there is also, on the part of the company a scarcity of trust and confidence in the individual workers who, almost universally, are working their butts off in a diligent, careful and professional manner. Basing corporate management style on a premise that punitive interventions are the only kind workers will understand and “obey”, on a demonstrably failed “scientific management theory” that has long ago been eviscerated from most enlightened workplaces, Canada Post sabotages itself while it continues to insult every worker with whom “it” chooses to engage. The fact is that all face-to-face exchanges initiated by CP supervisors with front-line workers are from a critical parent perspective. Whether Customer Service has received a complaint or a supervisor has complained about a co—worker, a supervisor will be deployed to lay down the law. Phone calls, private appointments, or even “kangaroo courts” and suspensions without pay are some of the methods of enforcing the rules. This approach has been proven to be ineffectual by even the least tutored, trained and experienced supervisory research. And then, following some “crossing of the corporate line of acceptable behaviour” a new policy, caution, sanction or threat is implemented effectively painting all “innocent” workers with a new layer of corporate compliance, and a deepening of the alienation of all responsible, committed and professional workers. Focused on mistakes, and the immediate need for crushing these “insects” (workers who may or may not have deliberately erred), lays an obvious and predictable foundation of contempt, distrust and fear throughout the organization chart, at least from the perspective of the lowest level workers on that chart.

I have worked with others who literally quiver on the expectation of a phone call from a supervisor, so unnerved are they at the tone, attitude and reputation of the supervisor. Similarly, some hyper-critical customers also strike fear into an already repressed and nervous worker base. Heavy-handed critical parenting is a self-sabotage, whether implemented by parents of children, army generals, bishops or CEO’s. Such an approach also insults both the administrator and the recipient. Mature adulthood, including a full investigation of the truth, a premise of confidence and trust in all workers by all supervisors will obviously save dollars, result in enhanced worker loyalty, and enhanced evidence of “going beyond the basic job description if and when appropriate.

In this light, ironically, but apparently missing from the corporate culture of Canada Post is the established and often touted reputations of Canadians for hard work, responsible compliance with rules and regulation, as well as a universally joked about compliance to stand in line, peacefully, while waiting for the concert, or even the ticket to the concert of our dreams. We are also willing, able and committed to do exceptionally good work, regardless of our position on the hierarchic ladder of the corporate organization chart, providing we are demonstrably treated with respect, dignity and truth.

And yet, just an anecdote in passing, in all thirteen years, I waited in vain for a single professional compliment from a single supervisor. And I was not being targeted as undeserving of legitimate support and encouragement. No one, in my time at the company, was ever offered a complimentary note, comment or word of support. Of course, there were a few dollars for a Tim’s coffee and Christmas, along with a gift certificate to some clothing company which has no retail outlets within one hundred miles of the workplace. Tokenism, as a surrogate for authentic respect and value, has always failed. And the sooner supervisors learn that basic tenet of human relations, the sooner the company will begin to premise its cultural attitude and approach on “plenty”. Another form of tokenism comes in end of year reports from some CEO, offering both compliments for having survived the deluge of Christmas mail, along with the usual threats to the corporate balance sheet.

Human Resources claims that they are interested in encouraging their employees to develop new skills, and to take on increased and different responsibilities. And yet, if and when there was a situation in which new learnings were required of employees, those closest to supervisors, with or without competence in the skill needing to be taught, were chosen, in order to demonstrate the low-level nepotism that drifts like early morning smog through the offices, mail stations and likely corporate headquarters. Of course, no cognizance of such an “insignificant” deferral to favourites would register on the radar of those making the decisions or on senior management. We do not normally notice the plank in our own eye, while magnifying the speck in another’s.

Back in 1984, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries and Danny Miller wrote a book entitled, The Neurotic Organization, in which they detail the characteristics of different dysfunctional organizations. One such organization, “paranoid” they describe in these words:

In the paranoid organization, managerial suspicions translate into a primary emphasis on organizational intelligence and controls. Management information systems are very sophisticated in their methods of scanning the environment and controlling internal processes. The environment is studied to identify threats and challenges that may be levelled by government, competitors and customers. Controls take the form of budgets, cost centers, profit centers, cost accounting procedures, and other methods of monitoring the performance of internal operations. Top managers are suspicious and wary about people and events both inside and outside the firm. The elaborate information-processing apparatus is a product of their desire for perpetual vigilance and preparedness for emergencies.
The paranoia of the top-management group also takes another form: It influences the decision-making behavior of executives. Frequently, key decision makers, instead of withholding information from one another as part of their defensive mobilization, decide that it may be safer to direct their distrust externally. To protect against competitors, they share information. Moreover, in order to ensure an adequate response to threats, a good deal of analysis accompanies decision making. Concerted efforts are made to discover organizational problems and to generate and select alternative solutions for dealing with them. Decision making also tends to eb consultative so that a large number of factors can be taken into consideration and thus many aspects of each problem or threat can be addressed. However, decision making can become overly consultative in that different people are asked for similar information. This “institutionalization of suspicion” ensures that the most accurate information will get to the top of the firm, but it may also lower organizational morale and trust (besides wasting valuable time and energy)
Another organizational characteristic that conforms to the paranoid style is the tendency to “centralize power” in the hands of those top executives and their consultants who design control and information systems. Those who feel threatened generally like to have a good deal of control over their subordinates. They use subordinates to find out what is going on, but they want to reserve the ultimate decision-making power for themselves. So the locus of power is high up in the organization….
The strategies of paranoid firms tend to be more reactive than proactive. External challenges “get through” to managers, who do their best to cope with them….But strategic paranoia carries with it a sizeable element of conservatism. Fear can take many guises, and it often entails being afraid to overinnovate, to overextend resources, or to take bold risks. So reactive strategy dominates…
A potential problem with the reactive orientation is that it can impede development of a concerted, integrated and consistent strategy. The firm’s direction is too much a function of external forces and not enough one of consistent goals, strategic plans, or unifying themes and traditions. A “muddling through” or “meandering strategy can result, under which no forceful, distinctive competences are developed….
Corporate paranoia may stem for a period of traumatic challenge. The environment may cause the firm to suddenly experience a crisis. A strong market might dry up, a powerful new competitor might enter the market, or a very damaging piece of legislation might be passed. The damage done by these forces may cause managers to become very distrustful and fearful, to lose their nerve, to recognize the need for better intelligence. (DeVries and Miller, pp.23-27)

Clearly, the dramatic surge of digital technology has imposed two equally dramatic demands, one positive, the other quite negative. On the positive side, based on potential revenue and profit, on-line shopping has grown to an extent that Canada Post’s pricing strategies have positioned the corporation as the most cost-effective of the many providers of parcel delivery to domestic and business clients. From an average of one-to-two dozen parcels on a daily basis, in my own route, the number of parcels grew to an average of two-to-three dozen or more, reaching a peak of 70 parcels/per day in the week before Christmas. Additionally, the weight limit, (pegged at 66 pounds previously, and more recently changed to anything over 50 pounds permitting a second person as helper) has quite literally ballooned to well over 70 pounds, and for individual carriers, there is no helper when one arrives at  the customer’s residence or business. Clearly, revenues from parcel delivery have risen dramatically, as has the pressure on carriers, in filling their vehicles, requiring return trips to the office if the vehicle cannot accommodate all parcels in the first load, and in the size, shape and weight of parcels having become larger than originally.

Another market threat, posed by at least one competitor which delivers to the door, prompted a policy change on April 23, 2018 by Canada Post. Now, all parcels, regardless of whether or not they require signatures, or collection, are delivered to the door of the customer. The convergence of increased numbers, sizes and shapes, with the new policy of “to the door” for all parcels has combined to generate considerable pressure on carriers, as well as potentially extending the length of the delivery day. Compensation, on the other hand, for these changes has been minimal, ‘while the impact of the changes is being monitored’.

On the negative side of the ledger, letter mail has dropped significantly, from what was once two full boxes, and often three, to one-to-two boxes of letters. Customers have increasingly grown comfortable with the use of the internet for paying bills, for invoicing, even for contracts through such on-line applications as e-SignLive, which permits one to sign legal documents in emails. It is true that there are still some customers, especially in rural areas, who either do not possess computer technology, or whose facility and trust of the new technology has not reached a level of comfort that they have shifted their personal and business communication from hard copy to digital.
With respect to volumes, at least from one perspective with a single rural route, the volume of magazines moving through Canada Post has risen, perhaps by a 10-20% rate. Ad mail, however, except for car dealers, furniture dealers, and corporations like steel buildings and steel roofing, along with rural internet providers, has shown no significant rise in popularity.

As a footnote to these changes in the mail/parcel delivery sector, Canada Post has, (belatedly, in comparison with other private-sector delivery corporations) accepted the new technology of scanning bar codes on parcels, replacing hand-written delivery documents. These PDT’s, shaped like a cell phone, although probably 50% thicker and heavier, usually work as expected, although probably a half-dozen times per month, a bar code will not scan, or the battery in the PDT fails. These minor incidents were not, however, a significant or troublesome aspect of adapting to new methods.

Training in the use of PDT was superficial, brief, even incomplete, at least in my own case. The capacity to scan the process of drop cards, those little cards that appear on the customer’s door knob, was never outlined in the two-hour orientation period, resulting in repeated glitches, until another “trainer” solved the puzzle. Of course, no one from the company ever inquired about how the process of integration of the new technology was going. No one asked about the level of training, except perhaps by a corporate paper questionnaire, which I never did fill out because I simply had no trust that my observations would find a pair of eyes, and a concentrated mind to evaluate them, in some faraway corporate office cubicle.

Nevertheless, the time, to the minute, and the location to the specific spot, of the delivery of parcels and “expresspost” or registered letters is compiled in real time, in some corporate memory bank, accessible instantly should the parcel not be in the hands of the customer at the time s/he expects, given the flagging by most shippers on the internet. The number of kilometers, down to 1/10 of a kilometer, for the route is documented by a route planner, who drives the new route configuration, on the same day s/he prepares the sort-panel into which letters are manually sorted at the beginning of each work day. As there are rarely insufficient compartments for all customers, the planner merges two or three customers into a single sort box, without consultation with the carrier as to which customers receive copious amounts of letter mail. When I remarked to a postmaster about this omission of the obvious courtesy of consultation with the carrier, the instant response was, “They simply do not care about your input to the design of the sort board!”

Paranoia, in an individual and also in an organization, is a cultural foundation for , and a result of the perception/belief in scarcity, and the fear of continuing scarcity, including potential undoing. Threatening sounds have been erupting from Canada Post’s headquarters for several years about declining profit levels, while the unions has been advocating for additional community services like banks, to be grafted onto the trunk of the original corporation, as has been successfully accomplished in other centres, including Great Britain, Israel, New Zealand. In the 2015 federal election, the parameters of delivery (direct to individual homes, as opposed to Community Mail Boxes) was one of the primary files in political debates.

Under the Harper Tories, Community Mail Boxes were being erected, sometimes in conflict with municipalities, particularly on the question of precise location and jurisdiction for the decision. The then Mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, even took a jack hammer to a concrete pad that had already been constructed in that city, as an “attention-grabbing” publicity stunt to push back against the decision of Canada Post. The New Democrats, as part of their campaign in 2015, committed to continue individual home delivery; the Liberals, as expected, proposed a “study” to determine the details of their approach. So far, that study, although begun, has received little if any public reporting, without any announcement of the current government’s final position on the issue.

Scarcity, however, colours all corporate thinking and communication, in the form of ‘cost-cutting’ that disease that has generated an epidemic in many corporations since the 1990’s when the Anderson Consulting group were contracted by several major corporations to gut the labour costs, thereby enhancing profits and dividends for executives and investors, respectively. Trickling down even to the “kindergarten” memo’s on safety, lifting, climate-appropriate clothing and footwear, and even how to avoid the colds and flu of transitional seasons, the corporation begins with the notion that all employees “on the front line” (actually delivering letters and parcels directly to customers) are either stupid or so careless and unaware that, in order to minimize the cost of disability insurance payments, or more seriously, law suits, treat those thousands of workers with a insulting patronizing. Covering their back-sides, writing in some cubicle, complying with the input of accountants and lawyers, as well as “Employee Assistant Programs” these bureaucratic drones serve as a battalion of cost-cutting, cost-preventing, infantilizing of front-line workers.

Corporate fixation on cost-cutting, has also driven the implementation of policies so short-sighted and so patently defective as to render the decision-makers quite literally incompetent. So out of touch with the physical dimensions of the job of the Rural and Suburban Mail Couriers are decision-makers that, only a few years back, they introduced what they called “the stick”. Championed as a device designed by an active RSMC (therefore who among the 6,500 RSMC’s could object?) this arm ranging from 45-53 inches in length, with a claw into which the letter/flyer mail was inserted, was then lifted by a driver seated in the left seat of the cab, and projected out the window on the right side of the vehicle, then hooked onto the door of the mail-box and inserted into the box where the mail was released. Naturally, the simply physics of gravitational force on the “mail” at the end of the stick produces a significant pressure on the arm and shoulder of the RSMC from the insertion to the extension of the stick was significant. Many RSMC’s have suffered significant and long-enduring pain and discomfort from having been required to implement this “equipment”. In my own case, the initial injury occurred some five years ago, and although I have complied with Physiotherapy directions and exercises, the pain in the shoulder remains as a chronic symptom.

Saving money by implementing the “stick” followed the elimination of the “Ergo” helper, a second person sitting in the passenger seat and inserting the mail/parcel into the rural mail box. Cost-cutting of a meagre, benefit-deprived, additional person, who also provided a second pair of eyes and ears to the day’s encounters, further demonstrated the corporation’s values, and vacuity of the actual conditions on the rural routes. Complaints from customers, completely unjustified, about the driver’s actions, were corroborated as invalid, in my own case, by the “ergo” helper, who was interviewed privately and separately from the “hearing” to which I was subjected. The community “service” provided, anecdotally, by the RSMC in communities in which there are no public security officers, of course, is ignored by the cost-benefit analyses done at headquarters, especially when the kind of lens used to evaluate both costs and benefits is so narrow, shrunk by the mind-set of scarcity, paranoia and fear. Some of the many observations that come naturally to the RSMC in a rural setting include:
·        livestock wandering outside their pens,
·        visitors lost on rural roads,
·        professional delivery services looking for an un-mapped road or street (we never provide the directions to a customer’s address!),
·        a broken hydro/phone pole following an ice storm,
·        deep unplowed snow drifts as heads-up for local road crews and school buses
·        a flooded road following a severe rain storm,
·        fallen trees after a wind storm,
·        a friendly inquiry to a driver of a “stalled” vehicle, to check on a need for help
Of course, none of these “things” are included as part of the basic mail-‘man’s’ “job” description. They are merely the things that come along without notice, to which any RSMC would respond. It is also not incidental that the “ergo” helper provided “companionship” that reduced the loneliness and the potential danger that can emerge at any moment. (Significantly, a law-enforcement friend asked recently, “ How secure are you and your RSMC colleagues going to be, when marijuana is legalized and flowing freely and liberally through the mail?” Even though the parcels have to be “smell-proof” those who seek to acquire such parcels will quickly learn what they are looking for.

Fear, scarcity, paranoia are qualities that profoundly influence both the decisions made by senior executives and the manner in which those decisions are made. Conditions at the bottom of the food chain in the organization rarely if ever seep into the consciousness of those executives. And the quality of the workplace (inside the office and on the road) in which they operate is literally irrelevant to their perceptions and attitudes. Are there costs to such an equation? Of course! Some are more incidental than others. Some penetrate into the attitudes of the RSMC, while others can be shrugged off as “corporate insensitivity and insensibility”.

Unfortunately, it is not only paranoia that characterizes much of Canada Post’s culture. Kets de Vries and Miller detail what they call the “depressive organization”.

Inactivity, lack of confidence, extreme conservatism and a bureaucratically motivated insularity characterize the depressive organization. There is an atmosphere of extreme passivity and purposelessness. Whatever gets done is that which has been programmed and routinized and requires no special initiative. The organization thus acquires a character of automaticity. (P.34) …The sense of aimlessness, purposelessness and apathy among top managers seems to preclude any attempts to give the firm any clear direction, orientation or goals. Strategic issues are never explicitly considered, so meaningful change does not occur. The   general outlook is one of pessimism….Managers are focused inward. …Most of their time is spent working out minor details and handling routine operative matters…Any outside observer would say that they firm seems to be in a catatonic state. (p. 36-7)

The history of at least four (not a typo) different unions to which the workers  belong  plus a history of a rigid military-model on which the corporation is based, along with having to serve different political masters in a fluctuating political environment…these are conditions which rarely if ever see the light of day in any formal corporate “critical” evaluation. Nevertheless, the implications of these imperial parameters, however, extend to the rigidity, the fear, the depression and the depressive culture of the corporation, at least at the bottom end of the operation.

No contract negotiations, focusing on the kind of “demands” that attempt to magnetize union memberships, immediately bankable, and immediately shifting the balance of spreading the revenues more equitably (a highly worthy objective) among all levels of the organization chart, are likely to address the more abstract, more subjective and less easily quantifiable aspects of corporate culture. Stability, the consciousness that no government would dare to pull the plug on this public corporation without a volcanic political fight, can and does cut two ways. It may give executives and employees some sense of security that they are engaged in a venture considered by some as a necessary public service. On the other hand, that “stability” may tend to curb or even preclude any creative adjustments, including the basic premises of the hierarchy on which the corporation has relied for longer than a century.

Paranoid bureaucracies tend, by definition, to incarnate isolated power, alienated from the street truths of their operation, obsessed with the daily balance sheet, including the number of specific mistakes accounted for by multiple monitoring persons and devices. They are not premised on a kind of mature, respectful, optimistic and supportive attitudes that seek out the talents and the ambitions of their employees. Words that proudly trumpet corporate interest in and commitment to the career growth and advancement of their workers, without a concomitant evidence of specific actions that would read resumes, conversations face to face with workers to seek out their unique talents and skills even applying those to the specific goals of the corporation, with or without new titles and offices only depict a hollowness of authenticity, integrity and trust between workers and executives.

Of course, the mail must be delivered. And there is literally no excuse for a failed delivery on each and every piece entrusted to Canada Post for delivery, in the most efficient and effective manner feasible. And the fact that very few Canada Post workers would even consider defaulting on such a noble responsibility defies the attitude of Canada Post as “critical parent” and school principal and officious supervisor. Those archetypes, paradoxically, do not grow trust, loyalty and the kind of worker attitude that naturally leads to customers who are more than merely OK with their mail delivery. Customers who genuinely appreciate the work of Canada Post delivery personnel appreciate the ‘go-beyond’ the bare minimum of their task. However, if the corporation is fixed on the minimum in the incarnation of their professional attitudes, both individually and collectively, minimum based on scarcity, fear, depression and a kind of negative stasis, going beyond the minimal will not become the norm.

For the decade-plus during which I worker for Canada Post, I resisted the notion widely expressed in public media, that Canada Post has to be privatized, sold to a for-profit organization, or sold on the for-profit share and stock market to private share and stock-holders. Given the numerous and growing numbers of screw-ups in the public service, epitomized in neon lights by the Phoenix debacle in the pay-system for the public service, highlighting what the Auditor General calls a refusal to bring “truth to power” by those who knew this mess was going to happen, long before the system was implemented, my criticisms of Canada Post will of course languish in the shadows of both insouciance and pimples, compared to the tumors that shout out regularly from various government departments.

However, a healthy mail service, whether owned and operated by the federal government, or owned by private investors as a for-profit entity, with or with labour union(s), needs to move into the twenty-first century in the manner in which in operates, on the human side of the enterprise.

That argument, so silenced in a period of corporate greed, and insouciance, in which millions of workers have no health benefits, no pensions, no maternity or paternity leave, needs an active, healthy robust and determined advocate at the corporate level. Executives interact between and among diverse corporations. Cultures evolve out of the vortex of such exchanges. Leadership at the upper echelons, that respects and works toward a highly visible commitment to balancing the needs of the balance sheet with the needs of the workers, is needed more today than at any time in the last three quarters of a century.

Canada Post is in a unique position to provide such leadership, in the manner in which it addresses the current realities of both the exterior environment and the interior environment. Electric vehicles, for example, that are safe and equipped for dramatic weather changes, ‘ergo’ workers, banking facilities, as well as pharmaceutical deliveries where no pharmacy exists in the communities, even offering shares to employees, to engage those workers in the details of the operation….these are just a few minimal ideas for active consideration when digital technology has become a tidal wave of opportunity. And it has to be seen as opportunity and not merely threat. Is that too radical for this muddling corporation and country?

*Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers

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