The Post-Election Postal Service, Part 2

Part two of two in a commentary, originally published in the most recent issue of Mailers Hub News. Click here for part one



  • Facility performance. Nothing runs smoothly everywhere and all the time, and the challenges of the pandemic are only making matters worse for the Postal Service. Despite this, it’s clear to any observer who has read USPS service performance data over a span of many quarters or years that there are some places that consistently perform poorly. Quarter after quarter – or week after week, given the more granular data recently available – the same places emerge at or toward the bottom. Such a pattern cannot be attributed to the pandemic or dismissed as caused by isolated or random problems. Rather, long-term underperformance suggests endemic, fundamental shortcomings in the operations, management, culture, and work ethic of the facilities.

    Previous audits by the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General have found that poor performance can be linked to situations in which standard operating procedures are not followed consistently, and when data tools designed to monitor operations and support execution of operating plans are not being used effectively by managers and supervisors to keep operations on plan.

    The OIG’s audit of late and extra trips also found misalignment between processing and transportation schedules.

    These are purely internal issues, but their effect is visible externally, and they’ve remained unremedied despite changes in area and district leadership.  Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that any improvement to facility performance will require greater – and more effective – corrective measures than have been applied so far.  If the underlying causes are deeply rooted in cultural and ethical attitudes, immediate improvement may not be feasible, but taking steps in that direction might be prudent, and more useful than accepting the status quo.
  • Operational initiatives.  Presumably – or hopefully – the end of the hyperpolitical campaign season and the attendant frenzy over whether the Postmaster General was trying to sabotage the election will mean the Postal Service can return to considering the initiatives it had been planning earlier this year.

    Reportedly, there were over fifty different initiatives that were on the to-do list in mid-summer, but the ones that drew the most attention were curtailing overtime, reducing late and extra trips, and removing processing equipment and collection boxes.

    The validity of any of the planned initiatives wasn’t diminished by the election season, and though the Postal Service is perhaps even more circumspect than ever about what it can do without drawing scrutiny, it should nonetheless consider resuming the planned activities, particularly:
    • Overtime.  Earlier this year, the OIG found that the USPS was not effectively managing overtime usage and costs, citing the scale of unauthorized overtime, the general growth of OT hours and of penalty overtime, and the overruns in overtime usage above planned levels.  Presumably, this report was read by the then-recently-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and became the basis for his edict to get overtime under control.

      If staffing at a facility is inadequate for workload, whether because of pandemic-related absenteeism, insufficient authorized complement, or unfilled vacancies for career or non-career positions, those reasons should be addressed directly and not avoided by simply using overtime.  Otherwise, managers have little choice but to use overtime to provide the necessary labor.  Moreover, if service requirements are to be met, the necessary resources must be applied and, again, if that means using overtime the choice seems clear.

      However, that does not mean that it’s not essential to assure that whatever overtime is used is authorized by management, is absolutely necessary, and will be used judiciously to support timely service.  The need to control overtime costs is legitimate, so scrupulous attention to managing it, and eliminating unnecessary usage of it, is something that can and should be pursued whenever feasible.

      Concurrently, executives need to be clear in their communications to the field.  As was seen earlier this year, what was meant was not always what was heard, and unnecessary confusion (and criticism of the USPS) resulted.

    • Transportation.  Another OIG audit published earlier this year focused on transportation costs, notably those associated with extra and late trips between processing plants and post offices.  This report also caught the attention of the new PMG and prompted what was interpreted as either an outright ban on such trips or an instruction to get their usage under control.

      One point the OIG made in its report was that it’s “critical for processed mail to be available for transportation in a timely manner.”  In other words, operating plans should align with transportation schedules so that the completion of sortation isn’t too late for a scheduled dispatch.  Late completion of mail processing may be caused by employee availability challenges, but otherwise, it seems reasonable to ensure that processing is finished in time to get the mail on the scheduled transportation, in turn reducing the need for late or extra trips to the minimum.

      As with overtime usage, the guidance of executives needs to be clear and unambiguous, allowing for local judgment but ensuring that the exercise of such judgment is consistent with organizational priorities.

    • Equipment.  The fleet of processing machinery needed to handle the volume of mail-in 2007 was larger than what’s been needed in later years, and that remains true as each year sees a continued decline in mail volume.  Fewer facer/canceller machines are needed to handle the decreased volume of stamped retail mail and fewer pieces of sorting equipment are required to process the overall decreased volume of letters and flats.  From the perspective of resource management, it seems only logical that, as volume declines, the fleet of equipment (and the number of employees) needed to process it should be trimmed accordingly – provided required service levels can be assured.

      The USPS had been rightsizing its equipment fleet for years and, now that the election is over, the need to continue the process remains, and the Postal Service should return to its plan.  It also should communicate to the public and Congress that equipment capability remains appropriate for mail volume and is sufficient to meet service commitments.

      Similarly, the regular process for measuring collection box utilization should continue and, when usage falls below a reasonable threshold, boxes should be removed.  This will not disable anyone from sending mail (carriers will still collect pieces left for pickup) so there’s no reason why the USPS should not resume its long-standing practice.  This, too, needs to be clearly communicated to those concerned.

To be fair, it’s easy to write a list of things the Postal Service – or anyone – should do.  The adage “Everything is easy for the person who doesn’t have to do it” applies to this commentary and to all the editorialization by industry observers and postal wonks standing on the sidelines.  (It particularly applies to the know-it-all politicians and their grandstanding speeches during hearings.)

However, despite this caveat, these recommendations to the USPS should not be dismissed by executives whose professional lives have been in an organization with a semi-justified, yet semi-self-created bunker mentality.  Not everyone in the outside world is inimical to the agency or its interests, and not everything that’s offered is baseless.

What can be seen from the outside may be a useful complement to the limited view available to insiders, and the advice of the one may be worth considering by the other.

Hopefully, the USPS will understand that and act accordingly.

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