NOTES FROM THE GEMBA – After re-insourcing its bike repair workshop, a distribution center of France's La Poste has begun to recover long-lost knowledge about the work of mailmen and using it to innovate.
Words: Catherine Chabiron, lean coach and member of Institut Lean France
La Poste, France’s national postal service company, runs a sorting and distribution center in Roubaix, in the north of the country, which I am visiting with Nathalie Lagrenée, North Operations Director. Nathalie is one of the very few women lean leaders I know, and every day she lives and breathes the essence of lean thinking: learning from the gemba.
Nathalie wants me to see an interesting experiment that started in Roubaix in 2016. Laurent, manager of the center, remembers when they first started: “Our postmen heavily rely on their electric bikes to manage their deliveries. They learn to ride them, and they adjust them to their needs (height, brakes, load balancing over the various compartments) until they feel completely comfortable with them. Up until 2016, malfunctions or safety issues typically turned out to be a big nuisance, because the bike had to be sent out to an external servicing facility to be repaired and our postmen had to switch to a replacement bike they didn’t trust for an unspecified number of days.”
In fact, because the repair center is not in the same location, the bikes in need of fixing were batched to optimize the load of the transportation vehicle. The transfer would only be arranged once a minimum number of bikes was reached. Add the waiting time for repair and collection, and it is not surprising that the lead-time varied between 7 to 30 days, not to mention the complexity of having to maintain a number of replacement bikes at the center. The consequence was that safety issues and basic preventive maintenance were at times by-passed or looked over by postmen, to avoid losing their precious vehicle.
“In 2016, we saw a great opportunity to solve the problem,” Laurent continues. “We decided to insource the bike repairing activities and set up an internal workshop. We had a volunteer to manage it, Pascal, and this turned out to be a blessing.”
In the meantime, Nathalie, Laurent and I reach the workshop, walking past several postmen busy sorting letters and parcels by street number. The job of postmen, in France like in the rest of the world, is changing dramatically: they used to have a monopoly on mail distribution, whereas they now find themselves in a fast-changing world where the number of letters is constantly decreasing, replaced by objects, ranging from magazines to parcels, that have to be distributed. They also face a lot of competition in last-mile delivery.
Even though Roubaix is a hub for e-commerce platforms and the volume of parcels it handles is ever-increasing, the sorting workstation has not been adapted to the size of the new objects yet – a key challenge here. However, the postmen’s mail bags have been redesigned and the bikes now carry large trunks that can accommodate small parcels.
FROM LARGE TO SMALL BATCHES OF REPAIRS
Nathalie tells me: “I wanted to show you this bike workshop because we have proof that its lean turnaround is now a reality, thanks to Pascal and Laurent’s support. Bike repairs, which were once batched, are now handled in a continuous flow, pulled by Pascal. Bikes are out of service for maximum 48 hours, down from the previous 7 to 30 days, much to the postmen’s satisfaction.”
We are now entering the small bike workshop that Pascal created. He is working on a bike right now: the user of the bike had encountered a problem the day before and asked Pascal to have a look at it while she was preparing for her round. Pascal has secured it on a lift and is just finishing the 36-point check he has designed himself. “It doesn’t take long, and I had the opportunity to do it while I was fixing the bike,” he explains with a smile.
I ask him how he organizes his day and the bike repairs and he shows me what turns out to be his production plan on an Excel sheet: “First of all, I rely on the complete set of checks that each postman is expected to perform on her bike once a month. If they flag something up, I pull the bike out of service and work on it. Every two months, whether they have raised issues or not, I take each bike in for a complete check-up.” Pascal tries to level the work on bikes pulled either for repair or maintenance, but – as we witness while we talk to him – he also handles Jidoka calls whenever immediate action is required.
Thanks to an intuitive Excel file designed with help of the Controlling Department and to the visual management of stocks, Pascal can autonomously manage his inventory of parts and trigger replenishment when needed.
BETTER, SAFER WORKING CONDITIONS
Postmen have a demanding job few of us know about: not only do they get up early in the morning to perform the last manual sorting of mail ahead of distribution and ride their bikes around our towns and cities in any kind of traffic and weather condition, but they are also expected to sell. The drop in the volume of traditional mail led La Poste to transform their large network of postmen into a door-to-door salesforce that distributes, and sometimes even promotes new services (or offers from local stores).
It is hard enough to manage all the potentially-dangerous situations inside a plant and prevent accidents, but out there in the streets and along country roads, the risk of accident is everywhere – curbs, dogs, vehicles, slippery conditions, and so on. Because the new flow-based system ensures swift repairs, postmen are now opening up about their doubts and the problems they experience on their rounds. The numbers speak for themselves: there were 198 repair orders in 2015, 214 in 2016, 350 in 2017 (as insourcing started to ramp up), and more than a 1,000 in 2018. This last figure was achieved not only as a result of additional requests, but also because the postal delivery center in nearby Bondues asked if Pascal’s workshop could repair their bikes too.
The first consequence of the re-insourcing of repairs was that the number of accidents caused by faulty bikes decreased drastically. The number of work accidents linked to bikes decreased by 90%, the number of lost workdays from 284 days in 2016 to 0 in 2017-2018.
LESS SQUARE METERS, LESS SCRAP, MORE RE-USE
The second consequence of the switch to small batches of repairs and to just-in-time is that the overall stock of bikes has been reduced by close to 10 %, as fewer replacement bikes are needed.
Fewer bikes means less square meters used for bike storage, space that can now be used for something that creates more value – like dojos, as I will show you in a moment. Marine, the lean expert on site, explains that the bike workshop initially measured 50 square meters. It later grew to around 100 square meters before being shrunk down to 30. Pascal adapted to the layout, but says he misses the area that was once separated from the rest of the workshop by a door, which meant he could walk out of the workshop without necessarily having to store all tools and parts. Laurent points out with a smile: “On the other hand, it forces you to keep it tidy and organized at all times.” Pascal nods and adds: “Sure, and because the workshop is now right next to the postmen’s sorting work stations, we have also seen an improvement in the flow of information.” Indeed, there is a board that postmen are using to flag up malfunctions.
But Pascal went one step further with the idea of sparing materials and resources: as he worked on bike overhauls, he started a recovery process for parts that would have otherwise gone to straight to the bin. One such example is bike bags: he recovers those that are in good shape (but being replaced by larger trunks designed to carry small parcels) and fits them on the bikes that don’t need trunks or need both trunks and bags.
He also breaks apart scrap bikes to recover spare parts. “Anything that is related to safety, such as brakes or tyres, we buy,” Pascal explains, “because we can’t risk it there.” His attitude towards the job reminded me of a DIY enthusiast: he tears down, studies, learns, sets apart, re-uses, and so on. He recently placed anti-fatigue mats on the floor that were being discarded from the postmen’s sorting stations and started to use them for his own place of work.
Small gains are piling up at Roubaix, enabling the center to re-invest in smaller tools, like a grinder, to manufacture small parts and conduct experiments.
PILING UP KNOWLEDGE AND SHARING IT
This bike repair re-insourcing is decidedly a horn of plenty. As the conversation with Pascal continues, it becomes evident that, thanks to him, La Poste is recovering lost know-how on one of its core tools, the postman bike. When the bikes were being repaired outside, the repair job would be strictly focused on the requests listed in the order. If anything was learned during the repair, it was lost to La Poste. If anyone had an idea for something that could be useful but didn’t appear on a request, it simply wouldn’t be done – as it could not be charged for.
Pascal, on the other hand, sees each repair as an opportunity to learn. He shows us the rim tapes equipping bikes recently purchased. He finds them too large, too rigid, the result being that the tyre does not correctly adhere to the wheel. This way there is an increased risk of flat tyres or punctures and, true to himself, Pascal is replacing those rim tapes with old ones he has recovered from scrapped bikes.
He is, he adds, in constant contact with the DT, the Technical Department of La Poste, which has confirmed his observations on the rim tapes and requested the supplier of bikes revert to less rigid outfits.
Another kaizen led by Pascal was done at a time when new batteries could no longer be purchased for the bikes electric assistance, as a result of a rare earths supply shortage from China. Insufficient autonomy of existing batteries had sometimes led postmen to finish the round with the sole energy of their muscles or to take two batteries with them on the round, just in case. Pascal took the time to learn what the best conditions were for batteries to be correctly and fully recharged at night and he redesigned the entire storage area (flat storage, not askew, cables not at risk of being unplugged in the process of retrieving a nearby battery, etc).
FROM KAIZEN TO INNOVATION
Laurent mentions the sudden breakage they had on a wheel fork: the wheel fork, not unlike the training wheels on either side of a kid’s bike, prevents the bike from falling over when riding at reduced speed or stopping to deliver the mail or a parcel. The fork is welded to the bike frame and the breakage suddenly occurred at the welding points, on both sides of the fork. Pascal spent some time studying the issue, compared different designs of forks and spotted the fault: the tube on which the fork is welded overlooks the wheel. Unless that tube is sealed, water will be sent up that tube, creating corrosion points from the inside right by the welding points, which will, at some point, break off under the weight of the mail.
Pascal has thus found many kaizen opportunities that led to an enhanced design of the bikes. It would be too long to enumerate here everything that Pascal or Laurent or Nathalie or Marine showed me, but one of Pascal’s latest findings is related to the parcel trunk at the back of the bike. Designed to contain small parcels (large ones are delivered by car), the trunk needs to be locked to prevent potential thefts while the postman is inside a building or a house. The lock opens up with a plastic key (on the left here-below), but those often break. Using the recently acquired grinder, Pascal prototyped a new key and is currently in discussion with the Technical Department to either have the supplier change the design or to make a set of metal spare keys that could be used if the original one breaks. Note that a trunk without a key is useless and that, in the absence of a spare key, the only alternative is to discard it.
The result of this insourced bike repair is so impressive that nearby centres are now trusting Pascal and his workshop with the repairs of their own bikes. Sure enough, Pascal’s workload has doubled in recent months. His dream, he concludes as we move along, is to spend his remaining years at La Poste developing workshops like his own and helping them to flourish.
DOJOS FLOWERING UP
I have mentioned earlier that the square meters that were saved up in the workshop allowed for more added-value activities, like dojos, to take place.
“I very much believe in learning and developing capabilities, and you have seen how successful this approach was in our bike repairs process,” Nathalie says. “The amount of things a postman has to remember to do every day is staggering. No wonder newcomers are overwhelmed by the difficulty of the job. So, when Marine told me she was working on a dojo dedicated to making a postman’s day a success, I knew I had to encourage her and support her initiative.”
We decide to go and visit the dojos, accompanied by Marine, Roubaix’s lean expert. She explains that she designed the dojo together with a small team of newly-hired postmen. They could have relied on an induction kit designed by Corporate, but they wanted to use their own words and pictures instead. “We started with a layout of our mail sorting area,” she explains, “and used it to cover all the different steps the daily processes entail. It took some iterations (and we still see improvements that could be made to it) but recent hires, upon testing the dojo, confirmed it would have saved considerable time and confusion in their early days.” The dojo is not designed to get into details, but to offer an overview of the day ahead and re-enforce the postmen’s mission, giving them a sense of purpose.
The team also designed a pocket card to keep at hand with the most important points to remember.
I can see many other dojos around the room, but these are more specific: how to manage temporary or permanent redirection of mail (still a complex manual operation), how to handle situations such as “unknown at this address”, or how to sell La Poste service offers like “Take care of my parents” (where postmen, who go past each house every day as part of their round offer to check on elderly citizens and help them out). For this last product (for all the products they are asked to sell), rather than using the advertising flyers La Poste has designed, the teams preferred building their own standard: what does the service consist of? Who can be interested? Why? What advantages are there for the customer? What do I get if I sell one? What sentences can I use in offering this service?
And the technical dojos go through a similar standard: provide the what and the why, go through the key points, practice, use multiple choice questions or games to ascertain everything is correctly understood, check the trainee on the job.
RE-FOCUS ON CUSTOMERS
Things aren’t easy at La Poste: there is a huge daily and seasonal variability in the workload, mail-sorting operations are still organized in batches, there are improvement opportunities for ergonomics at the sorting work stations, growth opportunities are scarce, and competition is heavy. Nonetheless, Nathalie sticks to her strong belief that, if you take care of your customers and your employees, the situation will improve, and she has repeatedly demonstrated that this is the case.
As we leave the center, she tells me about the major cultural change this new focus on customer represents for La Poste. “We have to learn all the basics, but I see a lot of people willing to do so. The other day, we had a bug in our system and we discovered after the rounds that 60 parcels had to be picked up from individual mail boxes that day (this is part of a new service where you can prepare your parcel, purchase the stamp online, and have La Poste come and pick it up from you own mail box). We missed them altogether. The teams were dumbfounded. I just told them to try and recover the blunder and at least warn the customers. They rolled up their sleeves, called each of the 60 customers to tell them about the problem, went back to the rounds, managed to collect some of the parcels that same day and the rest the day after. In the end, when we got the Net Promoter Score for that period, it turned out to be 100!”
Nathalie takes her safety shoes off and puts them in the back of her car. She’s all set for tomorrow’s gemba walk.