Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ummm...Where is my Mail?

The ways of the USPS are mysterious, indeed. It would take a worldclass Puzzlemaster to figure out why they do some of the things they do. Occasionally I really do think we make a bit of progress illuminating a hidden corner of the USPS.

But now I am truly flummoxed.

It all started out innocently enough. One client, an agency, told me that a specific package he has been mailing reliably for his customers for many years is now taking longer to get to its destination. Not a bit longer, either. It’s taking a lot longer.

This is not an idle “Where are my returns?” nervous conversation. This is empirical proof-by-seed evidence.

Last year his seeds showed up at US Monitor (a company the client has hired to track time-in-mail data for his clients) in 10 days; this year it is taking almost a month.

“What’s going on?” he asked me.

I wish I knew. Once we turn his mail over to the postal system and get our proof of delivery paperwork, our control of the mail ends. But clients still ask that unanswerable question, since we were the last people to see it alive, and we try to help.

The post office does not currently have failsafe methods for tracking mail that has gone awry. Sometimes we can send a supervisor to search for the mail. Once or twice, this ground search has found waylaid mail. Usually we hear nothing, but the mail mysteriously appears a couple of days after the search was instituted. Who’s to say what got it moving.

In my gut, I figure it’s because the Post Office is retiring older, more skilled workers, and the newbies aren’t into the swing of things yet. And maybe because there are fewer newbies, they can’t get all the work done in the same timeframe. It’s a guess, but what the hey. Blame the new guy.

It’s possible that because the Post Office is consolidating some of its processing functions to reduce cost, things get out of balance from time to time. For instance, all the flats (ie magazines, 9x12 envelopes, etc) mailed in the DC area are now processed out of one station in Brentwood (made famous by the anthrax attacks that killed 2 Brentwood postal workers in 2001).

It seems reasonable to me that Brentwood could get backed up occasionally, causing other back-ups in the system, much like LaGuardia during a thunderstorm slows down the entire US airline industry. It’s just a theory, but it sounds reasonable.

But in this day of almost univeral barcoding, lots of automation rules (and Merlin, of course), and promises of faster delivery as a result, what’s to explain a 2-week lag?

Someone on my staff decided to put the Post Office to a test. We put seed names into a series of client mailings. “Seed names” are names and addresses we deliberately add to a customer’s list to determine time-in-mail, condition of the piece upon arrival, etc.

As seed names we used our employees. Since our employees live close to the office, it wasn’t exactly a brilliant rocket scientist-level test, but sometimes you have to live with limitations.

For reasons now lost to corporate memory, someone put in two seeds for me at my home address. Since most of the jobs were presorted or First Class, these two identically addressed pieces were created one behind the other in the production queue, and they went to the Post Office the same way: one behind the other.

That much we can agree on.

But here is where it gets weird.

Seed #1 would arrive at my home a day or two after the mailing. OK, that’s good service. No problem there.

But Seed #2 wouldn’t show up for a week or 10 days!

If this lag had happened once or twice I’d say it was an anomaly. But it has happened over and over again. The worst case was a two-week delay between #1 and #2.

The letter had to travel less than 15 miles. Why would it take two days in one instance and two weeks in another? It didn’t make sense.

So I asked an expert on mail delivery: my intrepid carrier, Chris. Sadly Chris said he couldn’t tell me what was up. He assured me that he delivered the mail to me on the day that he got it.

But that told me a great deal, really.

If Chris is telling me the truth (and why shouldn’t he—that was a nice present we gave him at Christmas!) then the problem is upstream of the carrier.

If Seed #1 is whizzing through the system, then Seed #2 is getting hung up somewhere.

Our next foray into this strange and wonderful USPS universe is intelligent barcodes (IMB). Based on UPS and FedEx delivery models, IMB promises to help pinpoint mail as it passes through various processing equipment. Unfortunately, IMB is not quite ready for primetime yet, but it’s coming soon.

With IMB maybe we can determine where the delay is occurring. And if the mail gets delayed at the same spot all the time, then maybe we can help find a cure for what ails the system.

43670 Trade Center Place, Suite 150, Dulles, VA 20166
Phone: 703.996.0800 Fax: 703.996.0888 1.866.365.2858

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