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Business Fairy: "Please Make Me A Real Business"
By T.L. Righter, 7/16/2001
If only the wooden and unbending USPS could pay a visit to the Blue Fairy and ask the magical words "please make me a real business, please make me a real business." Like Pinocchio, who yearned to be a real boy, the USPS seems to be always searching for that magical elixir – be it a new business process, axiom, trend or what have you - that will make it a bona fide real business.

For the last ten or so years the USPS has been searching the business world for that magical business formula that will transform the USPS from an entrenched and intractable bureaucracy into a dynamic, thriving, and money-making business. Unfortunately, what works in the business world, or in a certain business, is not necessarily what works at the U.S. Postal Service. Moreover, when these private sector initiatives have been applied over the existing operating structure at the USPS, the outcomes have been disastrous. Mimicking the real business world has not been good for the USPS.

Consider the Self Directed Work Teams business model that was adopted by the USPS several years ago. In the early to mid 1990s, work teams became the hot business trend for companies attempting to flourish in an emerging and expanding technological revolution. With the work teams model, employees were usually assigned to teams of four to five people who would work together to solve marketing, technical or other business problems. This approach worked well in the technology sectors where a myriad of problems new to the business environment could be solved by small groups of dedicated and creative individuals working together. But leave it to the USPS to turn a good thing bad.

The USPS converted an entire post office in Minnesota to the work teams concept. However, the delivery function is not a dynamic situation filled with new problems to solve. The delivery of mail is a static, mundane, and repetitive labor intensive job that requires a very controlled work environment (since workers are motivated by the hourly wage; work longer – get paid more, work faster – get paid less). The plan was to divide carriers into teams of four. Each team of four would collectively be responsible for four routes. Each team was to be given limited autonomy in how best each day to collectively deliver the routes under their charge. Since the teams were to be self-directed, delivery supervisor positions would be eliminated. The USPS knew that carriers would naturally take longer because they did not have direct supervision, however, the USPS figured that the savings from eliminating supervisors could outweigh extra carrier overtime costs. Naturally, the attempt was a total failure. For one, the delivery function is not conducive to the work teams concept. Also, management did not alter the pay system to address underlying motivational factors (the hourly wage).

In the mid to late 1990s the USPS noticed that many companies were stressing the importance of measuring processes and performance. "Of course", the USPS thought: "We were planning and implementing, but we were not following up by measuring – that’s what we’re missing." So the USPS went into overdrive and started measuring everything. EXFC, PETE, VOE, EPED, Mystery Shopper scores, and a host of other measures and acronyms were the outcome. But what were the results? Example: Managers devised elaborate hub systems in cities across the country to circumvent measurements (test letters). Work teams of managers were organized to find problems and to manage and collect all of the measurements. Clipboards and paperwork proliferated, as did new managerial positions. While it is certainly good business sense to measure, evaluate, and correct, this was overkill. As a result, the USPS continues to employ a bevy of managers who chase numbers instead of delivering the mail.

"Measuring" initiatives have also been compromised by manager (EVA) bonuses, which brings us to another point – manager bonuses! Several years ago executives at the USPS looked with envy at the large bonuses handed out by corporations to employees who met performance objectives. Thus, we have the EVA bonus program. Unfortunately, though the EVA concept is a good one, the USPS has not been wise in how it has linked measurements to bonuses. Consider the District Manager whose bonus for a certain year rested in large part to meeting EXFC scores but was not linked to work hours saved. You can bet that the District Manager had instructed all carriers in the district to deliver every piece every day (EPED) no matter how much overtime it cost the USPS. Unfortunately for the USPS, the EVA bonus program has cost the USPS in more ways than the bonuses.

Finally, consider the 1-800 Call Center program. Again, several years ago, the USPS scanned the business horizon and noticed that real corporations have 1-800 call centers for customers. The USPS had to have one of its own so that it could look and feel like a real corporation. (Never mind the fact that centralized call centers have been one of the most hated corporate initiatives in recent memory.) The USPS spent several, several million dollars developing a call center of its own. What happened? Many customers would simply hang up upon realizing that they had called a dreaded call center. Customers, especially older customers who had no tolerance for the impersonal call centers, would walk blocks to their post office to speak to a real person. Other customers have been known to drive across town to speak to a real person about their forwarding of mail problems. The new toy (call center), however, soon lost its initial appeal. The USPS was soon cutting back on staff at the call center. The wait time to speak to a representative soon increased from fifteen seconds to two minutes or more. Finally, the USPS relented and returned local phone service to local post offices. Today, once again, a customer can call their own local post office, not someone in Provo, Utah or wherever the hell that the call center is located. All in all, this was a very costly and needless initiative.

The point of this editorial is not to bash the USPS for its corporate envy, but to simply say "get a grip and use your common sense." The USPS is 800,000 strong. Most if not all of these 800,000 have a pretty good idea about how to get the job done in the most efficient and reasonable manner. Instead of looking outward to businesses and ideas that have little or nothing in common with the USPS, let's look inward. After all (remembering the lesson from Pinocchio), it's what’s on the inside that counts!


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