If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride

The 400-year-old Scottish proverb used for the title simply translates into how easily things could be attained if nothing more than wishing for them were needed to make them real.

That adage was brought to mind when reading the documents discussed in the preceding articles of the July 20 issue of Mailers Hub News.  Assuming they’re legitimate, they first reveal a determination to act to reduce costs, the need for which cannot be disputed. However, at the same time, they also reflect not only an attitude that whatever is needed or desired will be made real by simply commanding it, but – of greater concern – a misunderstanding of the people to whom the order is being given.

Cost, service, and efficiency

In the wake of the documents’ disclosure, some observers questioned the Postal Service’s apparent perception that quality service and cost containment are mutually exclusive.  Whether the USPS intended to imply that it had such an either/or perspective cannot be known for sure but, regardless, few would agree that such a choice is necessary.

Of course, the coexistence of quality service and effective cost management has pre-conditions. First, there needs to be agreement between the service provider and those it serves about what types and levels of service are needed or desired.  Second, the service provider must conscientiously determine the appropriate costs to provide the service, while the customer has to objectively balance its wants and needs against the costs it would be willing to underwrite.  Finally, the workers involved in providing the service must have a sense of commitment to what was agreed, and ensure that both the costs they represent and the service they provide are consistent with the agreement between their employer and its customers.

Efficiency results when the greatest value can be derived, or the best service can be provided, for the least cost; that would be a reasonable goal for any enterprise.

Reality

For the Postal Service, the three conditions mentioned above don’t exist, at least not as they do in the private sector.

There’s no agreement between the service provider (the USPS) and its customers about what service is to be provided.  The closest things may be the general mandates of the Universal Service Obligation, a vague directive lacking meaningful detail, and the service standards established by the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Moreover, the agency may know what its costs are, and may set goals for what it wants them to be, but may not necessarily know what they should be.  And its customers are seldom content with whatever the prices are they have to pay.

Finally, and most importantly, no matter how much they may be nice to their customers or love their jobs, there’s little commitment by postal workers to the concept of efficiency – providing the best service at the lowest cost.

So, for senior management, expecting that costs will be contained and service will get better by simply declaring that those shall happen is unrealistic to say the least.  While both are necessary and possible, achieving them requires the cooperation of those who must make it happen.

If the directive to contain costs originated from the new PMG, as is widely assumed, no-one could argue that his objective isn’t essential and worthwhile.  However, while he has leverage over executives and other managers, if he expects rank-and-file postal employees to embrace his goals and start behaving like private-sector workers, and to do so simply because he said to do it, he obviously doesn’t understand the culture of the postal crafts.

In his directives, he clearly implies that his predecessor(s) failed to take steps to control costs, such as overtime, and demand greater efficiency from the workforce.  What that implication fails to recognize is that his predecessor(s) may indeed have wanted greater efficiency but knew that it wasn’t as achievable as he now seems to believe it to be.

Culture

Perhaps the biggest difference between the cultures of the private sector and the USPS is postal workers’ lack of a sense of individual or collective accountability for performance or the health of their employer.

Private sector workers clearly understand that if they don’t enable their employer to stay healthy and in business, they – not just “management” – will suffer the consequences.

Conversely, postal craft workers are insulated: the USPS is a government entity that’s not going to go out of business; they have contractually-guaranteed benefits and protections; and their unions have plenty of allies in Congress to buffer any pressures from senior management (see the article above).  Most consequentially, there are no performance standards to define the level of productivity or efficiency they must achieve.  Their output reflects only their discretionary effort, not the influence of supervisors, or a sense of obligation to ensure the success of the USPS.  As a result, many craft workers believe that the agency’s business condition is “management’s problem”; they’re not involved nor do they have any accountability or responsibility for it.  And their unions assure them that their pay and jobs are secured against the whims of “management”. As noted on page 2, the president of the APWU went on record with the comment:

“I would tell our members that this is not something that as postal workers we should accept.  It’s not something that the union you belong to is going to accept.”

The culture of postal craft employees isn’t something that was caused or fostered by DeJoy’s predecessor(s), but was something they understood and knew they couldn’t change by fiat.  To imply they were indifferent to productivity or cost containment isn’t warranted, especially not while the new PMG has yet to see how his own tactics will succeed.

So, if we were to offer any advice to Mr. DeJoy, it would be to start his campaign for efficiency not with the symptoms of inefficiency but their causes, especially those rooted in the workforce culture. That will be a long and difficult process, but must be undertaken, and it cannot be advanced by simply issuing directives.

Like US Steel, companies that have lost their battle with costs in part did so because the company and workers did not share a commitment to the company’s survival.  With that in mind, the new PMG can issue mandates to cut costs and reduce workhours, but at the same time he may need to revise his expectations until he can first secure fundamental changes in the culture of the postal workforce.

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