Management Stories: Principal PTTC harapur and Postal Service Excellence Committee

The low self-esteem of our employees weighed heavily on me, so I wrote a detailed report on my visits to Britain’s Royal Mail and how we could adopt some of their practices to improve our work and our image.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Sir Isaac Newton, 1675

At the end of 1986, I was selected for the post of Director of the Post and Telegraph Training Center (PTTC) in Harapur. Officers serving in training centers recently received a 30% allowance as an incentive to attract good officers to the training function. The posting was therefore decided by a selection committee. My work in Kota, Asian Games, Non-Aligned Summit, Postal Staff College, Philately and Aligarh Stamp and Seal Factory had been recognized and I was very happy to take up this challenge .

Established in 1951, PTTC harapur was the most prestigious training institute of the Department of Posts, which served the induction and continuing education needs of nearly 80,000 employees in the northern states of India. The institute was spread over 57 acres of land belonging to an abandoned Civil Aviation Department training facility. A former aircraft hangar served as an auditorium and the many barracks served as classrooms, offices and living quarters. The complex had lots of trees and beautiful gardens. The center was fully residential and self-contained with its own health center, dairy, barber, laundress, cobbler, tailor, small shopping complex, library and museum, etc. The atmosphere was as wild as you can imagine, but life was slow and the training function, our raison d’être, was not dynamic enough. We have taken feedback from field offices into account and redesigned our programs to make them more responsive to needs on the ground. The biggest challenge, however, was dealing with the high attrition rate among newly recruited employees. I started talking to each group of interns in our hangar-auditorium and realized that the problem was the low social recognition, heavy workload and outdated work procedures in the department. The poor state of our post offices and the absence of any technical assistance have also contributed to their low self-esteem. My motivational talks felt hollow, because just talking about the importance of the postal system didn’t cut much ice.

After about a year, I was nominated for a three-month “train the trainer” program at the University of Manchester. It was an excellent course with participants from several Commonwealth countries. In addition to the courses, I also joined the University and the Commonwealth office in London to visit several establishments of the British Royal Mail. I visited their post offices, their parcel sections, their automated sorting centers and their staff training school. At each location I was warmly received and witnessed the operation of the oldest and by far the best postal system in the world. The low self-esteem of our employees weighed heavily on me, so I wrote a detailed report on my visits to Britain’s Royal Mail and how we could adopt some of their practices to improve our work and our image.

When I was in the UK, the government set up a committee of experts for excellence in the postal services, led by Shri BB Lal, a former secretary to the Cabinet Office. The Joint Secretary (Staff) was a member secretary of the committee, which subsequently co-opted many experts in areas related to the scope of its work. Among the permanent guests is Dr. N. Seshagiri, founding director general of the National Center for Computing (NIC).

I was unofficially associated with the work of the Committee and responsible for keeping a record of all its deliberations. Formally, the Committee asked the PTTC to conduct a nationwide survey of consumer expectations of postal services and to identify issues that were affecting the level of motivation of our staff. We designed the questionnaire and administered it to over a million postal employees and customers in every state of India. The massive data collected was processed with the professional help of NIC, which reduced the data to an intelligible form in the form of tables, graphs, diagrams, etc. minutes and simultaneously worked on a draft for the Committee’s report. My staff worked well beyond office hours, late into the night, taking dictation and preparing drafts before preparing the final version. It was days before computers were available to us. To make matters even more difficult, some senior board officials did not want me to help the committee, which they believed was finding flaws in their system. I was told not to come to Delhi, but much to their disappointment, I decided to cover my own travel expenses and even took personal leave to travel to Delhi. I was threatened in no uncertain terms that I would be assigned to an abandoned place after the Committee completed its work. I was convinced, however, that the work we were doing was of immense importance to the department and therefore continued.

Participating in committee meetings has been an enriching experience and our national surveys have given me new ideas on what we can do to improve employee motivation and consumer satisfaction. My weekly interactions with the interns in the hangar-auditorium took on a new and meaningful twist. I was able to speak to interns with confidence that their department would soon see revolutionary changes that would give them a modern work culture. Did I imagine them coming out of the auditorium straighter and straighter? Did I sense a palpable change in their enthusiasm? There was hope and everyone looked forward to the time when they would have the latest technology to work with, which in turn would increase their social status and self-esteem.

My most satisfying moment came when the member secretary suggested to the chair that he start writing his report as the committee’s term was coming to an end. All my painstaking work and my bad blood with the members of the Council was more than adequately rewarded when the President held my report in seven parts, covering almost two thousand pages, close to his chest saying that “it was his report and that he had nothing more to add”. What more ?

The report was eventually edited and presented to the government, which ordered the Ministry to implement it. Around this time, I decided to leave the Postal Department as it was clear that I would be assigned to a “punishment post” after the Committee’s work was completed. I was not bothered since I had done what I wanted to do: be part of a sincere effort to put the postal services on the path to modernization and excellence in all aspects. Several years later, former colleagues told me that they still regarded the Committee’s report as the Bible of the Indian postal system.

The lessons here are obvious:

  • Set your own goals and take on the setbacks;
  • Keep doing your best and use every opening to further educate yourself and master your work; and
  • Remember the words of American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life is a journey, not a destination.

Arvind Saxena is an Indian civil servant and former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). A Civil Service Officer from 1978, he served in the Indian Postal Service for ten years, before joining the Research and Analytical (R&AW) Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat, in 1988. After retiring from Government , he joined UPSC in May 2015.

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