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Saving Private Ryan

September 10, 2010
Image of a double post box

Worthy of saving? Not even Tom Hanks can help an old soldier when the government turns against him


In the Tom Hanks film, Saving Private Ryan, a team of specialist US Army personnel sets out to rescue the last of four brothers before he too is killed in the fighting after D-Day. It’s an interesting film which transposes modern compassion on a distant age and highlights an interesting conundrum: is it worth the money (and mens’ lives) to save one individual?. 

The same applies in business. Today we hear the news that the UK’s Royal Mail (formerly part of the Post Office) is to be sold off for definite. Following the deaths of its state monopoly brothers in cars, steel, telecoms, water, energy etc, there is concern about the survival of the last member of the family. But, unlike in the film, no-one seems to care. Even its mother Britannia fails to weep over her child as she does the ironing alone… 

Millions have been paid into it but it’s now been decided that this venerable institution requires no more compassion. These days, universal service of high quality is no longer deemed a state objective unless, like the NHS, to privatise it would be political suicide. 

Inevitably, a privatised Royal Mail will be worse than in state control. Because private companies have little interest in universal service – which company does? It doesn’t make sense to offer a one-size-fits-all solution at a standard price. But there seems no one left willing to defend it. 

It will soon become acceptable to have post delivered at 5pm in the afternoon. Where once we could expect 2 deliveries a day (one before 9am), now we’re lucky if we receive one delivery around mid-day. Service comes second to profit – such is the madness which is a state-run business being prepared for sale. And of course, this Private Ryan will refuse to go quietly. 

But the real horror of the story among all the bloodletting and redundancies is this – a tale of abject complacency by government, management and workforce alike. Infighting, back-biting, point scoring, incredibly arrogant working practices – all at the expense of the people who really matter: the customer. 

Many years ago, I heard a presentation by Cranfield’s Professor Malcolm McDonald where he told the audience that the problem facing the Post Offce was the changing nature of customer habits. If the Post Office/Royal Mail didn’t watch out, soon they would have no business, he predicted. And how right he was: now, thanks to internal politicking (not to mention the pensions nightmare created by former Chancellor Gordon Brown which has screwed us all), the Royal Mail is desperate. 

Government, management and workforce all failed lamentably to focus on the customer. Government wanted to reduce costs. Management wanted to increase profits. The workforce wanted to protect jobs. What fabulous focus!  

Today’s announcement is good news for the Government as it gets the Royal Mail off its books. It’s good news for the management because they can focus on running the business “commercially”. But it’s bad news for the workforce because there’s going to be one heck of a cold wind blowing across the industry. And it’s even worse news for the customer – because an unspoken system which united the nation is now brought low on the altar of profit. 

Today, few people seem to care about the Royal Mail. The customer experience is now late deliveries, outsourced Post Offices, staff dressed in lurid and ill-disciplined outfits, and an overwhelming sense of doom. Why go and queue at the Post Office for lacklustre service when you can send an email? 

The fate of the Royal Mail is a lesson to all businesses who neglect customer needs and focus only on themselves. No business has a right to exist. This Private Ryan looks set to fend for himself. 

Image courtesy Leeds Daily Photo

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