USPS: It Reminds You of the Army, and its Call to “Hurry Up and Wait”

Ever walk into your local post office, see 30+ people waiting in line to mail their packages, and three postal workers are working as fast as they can to move people through? Sometimes it takes me more than 30 minutes to hand off a Priority Mail package for delivery to a client. It reminds me of the song Johnny Mathis made famous, The Twelfth of Never, or the famous U. S. Army line “Hurry Up and Wait.”

Usually I grab my ticket first, go get my mail from my postal box, go next door to buy a copy of USA Today from John’s Mountain Home Bakery, think about buying a couple of bismarks and a chocolate milk, and then return to the post office and read my paper until my number is called.

I am a pretty good sport about this because it has been my 30-plus-year experience in business that the United States Postal Service (USPS) does an outstanding job of moving our mail and packages around on time.

Yesterday there was a long wait and people were talking quietly to one another, saying things like, “Geez, can’t they get some more help,” or “I have never seen workers move so slowly,” or “I hate having to wait so long, I have things to do.”

After getting up to the counter, I became acutely aware of something I have noticed before but had not registered in my mind. The worker would tap the monitor of their new computer software system, and then wait, I mean literally wait two or three seconds, and then tap it again. I realized the postal worker who looked slow or inefficient was actually waiting on a new computer system that was slow and inefficient.

Imagine yourself running a huge company (in this case a government-owned corporation that is a statutory monopoly) that delivers 212 billion pieces of mail to 144 million homes, businesses and postal boxes (23 million pieces daily in New York City alone), ends up handling more than 44% of the world’s card and letter mail volume, and serves more than 7.5 million customers daily in 37,000 post offices. This is all accomplished with 700,000+ employees and 260,000 vehicles.

Your USPS is the third largest employer in the country after the United States Department of Defense and Wal-Mart. Talk about a big business. The USPS has annual revenue of $70 billion.

Now focus on Wal-Mart, a publicly held business with 1,800,000 employees worldwide and nearly 6,500 stores and wholesale clubs in 15 countries. Wal-Mart did $312 billion in revenue last year, $242 billion more than the USPS. I will bet that the USPS would like to net almost $11.2 billion like Wal-Mart did last year.

Given these facts, I ask myself: Would Sam Walton (the founder of Wal-Mart) tolerate a slow, inefficient software system like the USPS uses? Absolutely not. He would find and buy a much faster, much more efficient system to increase productivity, and then pass on the savings to his customers.

After talking to a local manager about the current postal software used in processing mail at the front counter, I found out that this is the United States Postal Services’ new system, purchased and implemented within the past year. Is this good management?

With 37,000 postal stations and 700,000+ employees (not all working the front counter, mind you), with perhaps 3 per office working the front counter (that is 111,000 employees), how much time is wasted waiting for some slow software to calculate a transaction? I mean, it was ridiculous the amount of time it took a postal worker to stand there and wait to enter and complete another transaction.

I can swipe a credit card at Wal-Mart and get a transaction approval in a fraction of the time that it takes me to stand waiting at a post office counter with a slow, inefficient software system that crawls through a transaction as if it was going to make a career out of it.

I have no idea what kind of great decisions top management at the USPS makes, but identifying, purchasing and implementing an efficient software system (especially when upgrading) is not one of them.

All of this reminds me of what Thomas Fuller said: Cheat me in the price, but not in the goods. I wonder if the maker of the software the USPS bought sold it to them with a huge discount because it could not find a major, successful business that would touch it with a 20-foot pole.

Usually in the battle between men and machines, it is the man that slows down the machine; in the case of the USPS front counter processing software, it is the machine that is slowing down the man, not to mention annoying customers and aggravating postal employees.

Where is that ergonomics guy when you need him?

Copyright (c) 2006 Ed Bagley