Red rubber bands

On the way to a friend’s house a few months ago, my young daughter pointed out some red rubber bands on the path. From her vantage point in the buggy she gets a good view of what’s down there and often points to red rubber bands lying around. She can even tell me that the postman has dropped them because I’ve had to explain it to her so many times!

I believe that the Post Office started using red rubber bands to bind bundles of letters together because that way they thought that postmen would be able to see them more easily when they fell on the floor and would pick them up instead of leaving them lying around. Doesn’t seem to have worked that way, does it?!

Now, I heard a speaker from communications at the Post Office speak at a conference about communciating a business strategy to staff and it sounded to me that they had some really good ideas about how to engage staff. So I’m not in any way dissing communications there – I don’t know enough about what actually happened to be able to comment. But the bands do make me imagine what might have happened and how it could have gone wrong.

It seems to me that this could easily have been a classic case of making assumptions and forgetting to check them by asking the people concerned. It’s all too easy, especially in the busy day-to-day of a business, to think that you don’t have time to ask people to tell you what they think. You see evidence of their behaviour and you assume that you know what’s causing it so you design solutions around what you think you know and what you want to happen.

But it seems to me that postmen weren’t not picking up rubber bands because they couldn’t see them. If that had been the problem, then using bright coloured ones would solve it. But the bands are still on the floor so there must be something else going.

If managers ask their staff what is causing a problem, then they can get a real understanding of what’s going on. They could also try asking staff what could be done to solve it. That way they can tap into a really creative source of ideas and engage the staff – if they’ve helped to design a solution they are far more likely to follow it than if they receive an order from on high.

Some managers might find it scary or just not want to ask their staff because they don’t know what they’ll say and so the manager will lose control. However, if they work together as a team they’ll be far more motivated and achieve much more. And that’s got to be good for everyone, surely? Even if the manager only sees their job as being about getting the task done (and personally, I think there’s a lot more to it than that) then engaging their team is going to be good for them.

Until next time


2 thoughts on “Red rubber bands”

  1. I feel that you need to examine the broader picture such as what would prohibit postmen from doing exactly what you want. Could it be a time factor versus the need to check that the mail has properly sorted? Just imagine how little time it would take to retrieve a single rubber band and then multiply that by the number of individual addresses that may have more than one item. Would you consider 2 seconds x 50% of their total bulk mail to be a fair assumption?

    Obviously we are dealing with an unknown quainity so now I will give you a comparison. I have previously worked as a part time collections driver for Royal Mail and frequently had to refuse to comply with a request to wait a couple of minutes. From the customers perspective I was being obstructive even when I patiently explained that I had 40 business bulk pick ups to make within a very tight schedule and if everyone wanted a couple of minutes then I would be at least 80 minutes late.

    Yes I had previously tried to oblige the customers and ended up having to explain to my manager why I was apparently incapable of working to my timed schedule. The problem is that many schedules appear to have been timed early on a Sunday morning when road traffic was minimal. Though I have never worked as a postman I imagine that they deliver to more than 40 private addresses and I do know that their work load has increased within the last year or so.

    • Absolutely, Tim. There are always lots of things that are impacting your audience and the way they receive your communication. It’s so important to try to understand as much about what’s going on for them as you possibly can.


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