Thursday, August 04, 2011

Fix the USPS

If you’re even tangentially involved in publishing, a functioning USPS is important to you. If you live in the United States, you know the postal service is in trouble (and not for the first time). If you’re older than twelve, you’ve probably gotten crosswise with the USPS more than once in your life. I know I’ve lodged my share of complaints over the years, and I’ve watched the service deteriorate, improve, and deteriorate again. It’s time to fix what’s wrong.

In the short term…
Mail volume is down in all categories. A lot of mail has gone online. A lot of the reduction is a symptom of a weak economy. Volume is not going to recover. As a result, the USPS is losing money hand over fist and they’re looking for ways to save money. They always trot out their old standby—eliminating Saturday deliveries—because they know that will be rejected and they’ll get a rate hike instead.

Well here’s an idea: For business deliveries, go ahead and drop Saturday. It’s okay. Really. For residential deliveries, keep Saturday and drop Tuesday. People who work regular Monday-to-Friday jobs, what few of them remain, need to be able to get to a post office when it’s open, to pick up parcels that were not delivered, to mail bulky items, to purchase money orders, to apply for a passport. They need Saturday hours. Once mail that came in over the weekend is delivered on Monday, most people would probably accept skipping Tuesday. And for federal holidays that fall on Monday, the postal workers would get an extended break (something they rarely get now). That wouldn’t happen if the skipped day were Wednesday. Similar arguments can be made against Thursday and Friday, particularly as regards checks that come in that you want to deposit during the current week. But Tuesday? I can live without it. How about you.

Why does my letter carrier drive a truck?
In all the countries I’ve visited in the last several years, letter carries use pushcarts, bicycles, tricycles, or scooters. They do not drive a fleet of custom-made gasoline-powered trucks for a total distance of two miles a day each in order to move mail from a local branch post office to houses that are within easy walking distance.

My local post office is on the current closure list, and the neighborhood is up in arms. Why? Because the post office is within walking distance, and it would be a shame for seniors to have to get in a car to go to the next post office down the road (less than a mile away). Doesn’t that suggest that the letter carriers could manage without their own individual trucks? Do it the way every other civilized country does it. Save capital costs. Save energy costs.

Why is my post office lobby frigid in summer and broiling in winter?
Because it was built when James Farley was Postmaster General and postal workers were not entitled to a pleasant working environment. So the only heating and cooling equipment is in the lobby, and by cranking it to the max, enough makes it through the service windows to the back to make life bearable. In other words, the building is an energy hog. It should be retrofitted or closed. How many other post offices are of the same vintage and wasting huge amounts of expensive energy for equally ridiculous reasons?

In the long term…
All of the long-term dysfunctions of the USPS—and for all they do right, they are certainly a dysfunctional organization—can be traced to a single root cause: the USPS is the archetype of the Theory X organization. It’s time to figure out how to migrate to Theory Y, to empower employees to make decisions that solve problems instead of hobbling them with thousands of pages of regulations, procedures, and rules.

First, teach managers to manage, not the way they’re trained to manage now but in accordance with modern practices. Then empower them to do so.

An example. A couple of weeks ago, our mail deliveries suddenly became very irregular. We got little or no mail when it was eventually delivered, which was not every day and certainly not during daylight hours. When I inquired, the reason eventually given was that our route only takes three and a half hours to deliver and so does not justify a full-time carrier. Therefore we’ve been designated an auxiliary route (don’t ask). After a bit of conversation, I asked why the manager doesn’t just divvy up the routes differently so they are all roughly equal in length, rather than always having to designate an auxiliary route and leave customers angry and upset. No can do; laying out routes is not the manager’s responsibility. Well, why the hell isn’t it the manager’s responsibility?

Classic Theory X. The manager is powerless to manage, because all decisions and rules are imposed top-down from layers that are totally inaccessible from below.

Change it. Make every employee from the carrier to the CEO accountable for meeting performance goals and then empower every employee to make decisions to that end. If that means replacing trucks with bicycles to save enough money to keep the office open, then the carriers and manager should be empowered to make that choice.

This will take a long time. The USPS is composed of people selected for their ability to digest, abide by, and enforce rules—on each other and on us, the customers. It is not peopled with employees dedicated to serving customers or meeting performance goals creatively. If they change their hiring practices today, it will be thirty years before the workforce turns over. But they should start today anyway. And they should start intensively training the managers they have (who come from the same ranks of rule-bound employees) and favor the ones who understand how to adapt.

The USPS says it has a crisis. There’s no better time to act. Fix the system.

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