Efficiency could land you in jail

A German postman recently faced criminal charges for coming up with using more efficient routes to deliver the mail. His supervisor had informally tolerated his initiative, but could not officially sanction it since his violated procedure. He got into trouble when his suspicious peers reported him. Fortunately he was not fired, only reprimanded for not following rules.

The source I saw (thanks Tim) doesn’t give much more detail. Maybe the charges against him were not as ridiculous as they seem. Maybe he violated reasonable safety regulations, for example. But I find it quite plausible that he simply got into trouble for using his brain. Even if the incident were completely made up, it would make a good story. It’s symbolic of bureaucratic punishment of efficiency. It’s easy to find analogous examples.

If this mailman were working for a small courier company, the company might reward him and ask him for recommendations for improving other routes. Of course a small company might also fire him. But large organizations, public and private, are more likely to punish initiative. And I understand why: large organizations have to maintain consistency. The clever postman must be reprimanded for the good of the system, but it’s maddening when you’re the postman.

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21 thoughts on “Efficiency could land you in jail

  1. Hi,

    could not find anything on this from the usual news-sites here in germany but I think this could be true.

    Sadly using your head is NOT a good thing if it concerns laws and regulations here. It’s almost Orwelian: obey the rules no matter how stupid they are.
    And as this is said to have happened in Bavaria (where there is a very conservative mindset common) it’s even more true :)

  2. Similar, possibly true story, is how Soviet car factory workers came up with a way to reduce weight of the cars. They got a reward – and reduced salary. They were payed by weight of the cars ;)

  3. I suspect the problem was that the fellow was too efficient. If he had only improved his efficiency say 10%, not enough to make his peers and the official routes look too bad, all might have gone well. In his book “Secrets of Consulting,” Gerald Weinberg warns against making such a large improvement that you embarrass your client.

    Maybe this mailman delivered his assigned mail and simply went home, as if his job were to deliver mail rather than to put in the prescribed number of hours. That really angers some people. They’d rather the work take longer.

  4. Muigai: Check out the “hierarchical exfoliation” link about. It’s about how organizations get rid of people who think too much.

  5. I looked up the German source referred to by this article (Münchener Merkur), and that in turn refers to another article (Oberbayerisches Volksblatt).

    The interesting part in the original article that was dropped in the recycled articles is that some mail did indeed turn up in a trash container, but it could not be verified if that was him or not. So the real issue was that the post office had lost track of some mail, and the unusual fast postman who did not follow procedure was naturally suspected.

  6. Chris: Thanks for the research.

    As I’d alluded in the article, even if the report as I saw it were not correct, it’s entirely believable that something like this could happen. It does happen.

  7. I am reminded of a story told to me by a coworker. He once received a through dressing down from a supervisor for completing a job in two hours instead of the union-mandated eight. Not even a case of getting in trouble of using your head, but just for not sitting around on your butt.

  8. Certainly, and I should add that this postman’s unusual efficiency did make him suspicious when mail vanished. He would likely have avoided the court hearing if he had been working more slowly, even though the accusations were not about that.

  9. If there were a more efficient route that did not introduce additional safety risk, and that similar efficiencies could be found on at least some other routes, then the work could be done with current number of workers – n.

  10. John:

    The postman’s story reminds me of the angry reaction I got from some blog readers when I revealed that I spend 15 minutes to review articles submitted to journals.

  11. Steve: Thanks for the link to Sean Taylor’s post. The “What your statistical software says about you” section is funny, and I suspect to a large extent true. Love the Julia line. :)

  12. I used to run a small used book business, selling books on the internet. This involved visiting the post office 5-6 days per week to mail out the books which had sold the previous day. The clerks all knew me, and I was one of their most regular customers. I only shipped books, never anything else, using the cheapest shipment option (media mail).

    And yet, they would always ask me if I wanted delivery confirmation or insurance, and if the package “contained anything liquid, perishable, flammable or potentially hazardous”. The answers to each question for each package was no. Before I exited the book business, I was probably asked the same questions 3000-4000 times, by the same set of 5 clerks at the post office. I asked a few of them why they always asked me the same questions when they knew the answers. They’re required to, and they can get in trouble if they don’t. That was the whole answer. Sad.

  13. And I understand why: large organizations have to maintain consistency. The clever postman must be reprimanded for the good of the system, but it’s maddening when you’re the postman.

    The part I question here is the good of the system because it could mean anything.

  14. @Dan I agree with your logic. Managers and unions have spend generations justifying why they need exactly the number of workers they have. Doing things better means either your manager is incompetent or that the union workers actually aren’t working as hard as they’d have the government believe. Either way someone looks bad, the boss might get fired or at least have their prestige go down since they’ll manage fewer people, unions might raise a stink creating headaches for the managers and more work for everyone in short no one wins when you get caught doing things smarter.

    Do your work smarter then sleep on the job for a longer period of time. That is the key to union work.

  15. @Mike, It’s not a problem unique to Unions and not a problem of all Unions or Union employees. I’m thankful for the Union that my father worked in while I was young. My father is thankful in his retirement.

    Inertia, fiefdoms and various other interests often resist change for the better, often to the frustration of analytical types.

  16. @Dan I agree that unionized environments aren’ t the only place with fiefdoms but they are also often a cause for making employers fear change. In any other environment I’ve worked if the employees try to do something the boss doesn’t like the boss wins. In union shops for better or worse any change including improvements has to be discussed and negotiated to death before it can be implemented.

  17. While this does seem ludicrous on the surface, I can think of a few good reasons for such a thing to happen.

    1 – Safety. If something were to happen to a postman during his route, it may be important to know what mail had been delivered and what hadn’t, as well as where he was and the next destination. All this information is tied up in the route.

    2 – Scheduling. Some people may know when their mail arrives and plan activities around it. Changing the route may require customers to adjust schedules.

    3 – Accuracy/Completeness. If the postmen are allowed to design their own routes, it would be quite possible for errors to occur and addresses to be omitted. Route changes need to be reviewed to ensure that all mail is delivered correctly.

    4 – Efficiency. I know this seems oxymoronic in this case, but if we have a bunch a vigilante postmen re-routing themselves on their whimsy, it would be highly likely for one of them to design a less efficient route. In fact, it could be in their interest to do so since they could perform less work and possibly retain their pay.

    My hunch is that there is a procedure for changing routes that was not followed here. I imagine that had the postman filed the proper paperwork, the route adjustments could have been made and reviewed for accuracy, completeness, safety, efficiency, etc and all would be well.

  18. Chris B: The possibilities you list are reasonable, though I’m skeptical of your last paragraph. The article implied that the postman’s supervisor was aware of his route but was powerless to make it official.

    I have little confidence in the ability of bureaucracies to do the sensible thing in a reasonable amount of time. For example, maybe for political reasons the inefficient route cannot be changed until the person who designed it retires. However, now that the story has gotten some press, the route may be officially changed ASAP. So much of bureaucratic life is about optimally allocating embarrassment.

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