Operational Issues May Explain Service Standard Failures

A major focus of the Postal Service’s 10-year Plan, issued March 23, is the need to downgrade service standards for First-Class Mail because the current standards, which haven’t been met for several years, are “unattainable.” The Plan recites various reasons for this situation, including failures in air transportation and in compliance with facility operating plans.

The fundamental absence of operating discipline in USPS processing facilities was highlighted in two audits published in mid-April by the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General: Delayed Mail at the Lehigh Valley, PA Processing and Distribution Center, issued April 12, and Delayed Mail at the North Houston, TX Processing and Distribution Center, released April 13.

The OIG explained why it chose Lehigh Valley and North Houston as the sites for its audits:

“We selected the Lehigh Valley P&DC for audit because from January 1, 2019, to August 31, 2020, MCV reported about 605 million delayed mailpieces, or 32.2% of the total pieces handled at this facility. ... We analyzed delayed mail volumes from mail processing facilities nationwide and found that the North Houston, TX, Processing and Distribution Center (P&DC) reported the most delayed mail in the nation from January 1 to December 31, 2020. However, the North Houston P&DC also processed the most mail in the country during that timeframe. ...”

To help facilities better manage workload and meet operating schedules, in January 2019 the USPS deployed the Mail Condition Visualization application within Informed Visibility. The MCV tool provides operations managers with a comprehensive overview of arriving and on-hand mail so that processing can be planned to enable the achievement of service standards.

Regarding the Lehigh Valley facility, the OIG reported:

“Lehigh Valley P&DC management was not processing the managed mail according to its designed flow, which caused MCV to improperly report that volume as delayed mail. ... Further, while it did not directly contribute to delayed mail at the facility, the Lehigh Valley P&DC did not have an updated operating plan. Lehigh Valley P&DC management was not following Postal Service Headquarters guidance for designed mail flow of managed mail. Instead, the facility was processing this mail on a sort plan which resulted in it being sent to delivery units without all processing operations being completed. ...”

Mail being received too late to achieve service standards was another problem found at both facilities:

“The Lehigh Valley P&DC received managed mail from other facilities after the critical entry time of 12:00 p.m. ... The transportation schedule in the Surface Visibility listed 30 daily incoming trips arriving at Lehigh Valley P&DC after the managed mail critical entry time [including] six observed trips [that] arrived be-tween five hours and 30 minutes and 10 hours and 15 minutes after the managed mail critical entry time. Lehigh Valley P&DC management was aware of this mail arriving regularly after the critical entry time and communicated with the respective facilities from which this mail originated; however, a root cause was not identified.”

A similar problem was observed at North Houston:

“The facility received a lot of mail containers from other facilities after the Critical Entry Time ... . From January 1 to December 31, 2020, the North Houston P&DC averaged about 1,000 late arriving containers every month, with the number of late arriving containers ranging from 751 in September 2020 to 1,304 in August 2020. Plant management was aware of the late arriving mail but had not communicated with the other plants from which this mail arrived to determine the root cause(s) for the late arriving mail and had not taken action to resolve the issue.”

The OIG also found mail being delayed because of local arrangements and miscommunication:

“While onsite at the Lehigh Valley P&DC from October 5-8, 2020, we observed a large quantity of nonmachinable outside priority mail packages on the inbound dock. Management stated they were sending these packages to the Scranton P&DC for processing due to employee availability issues at the Lehigh Valley P&DC. However, on October 6, 2020, a press release from the office of US Senator Bob Casey reported that about 30 to 35 large mail containers loaded with priority mail dating as far back as September 17, 2020, had been rerouted from the Leigh Valley P&DC and were sitting at the Scranton P&DC. As a result of this messaging, Lehigh Valley P&DC management decided to stop sending nonmachinable outside priority mail packages to the Scranton P&DC and instead committed to staffing additional employees and allocating overtime to process them at the Lehigh Valley P&DC.”

It’s highly unlikely that the OIG happened to pick the only two processing facilities in the country that were not using data tools like the MCV effectively, that were experiencing delayed incoming mail, that were not communicating with other facilities or investigating why trips were late, that were not monitoring mail sitting awaiting processing, or that were not following operating plans. Rather, it’s likely that the situations the OIG found in two plants are similar, to one degree or another, to the situations in the hundreds of other USPS processing facilities.

As was observed during last winter’s prolonged episodes of unloading delays, out-of-sequence processing, and transportation failures, the problem isn’t the service standards that have been established for First-Class Mail, or the less formal “goals” prescribed for Marketing Mail and other classes.

Rather, the fundamental and pervasive problem is operational incompetence: not using the tools provided or following the established operating plans to make sure the facility does what’s necessary to process and dispatch mail on time. The consequences of what amounts to wholesale poor management performance are obvious. Where the fault lies for this circumstance – who selected or trained the managers, who’s supposed to monitor their performance, what tools are in place to oversee plant and network operations and why they weren’t working or being used as intended – is somewhat academic; the problems must be fixed, individually and systemically.

However, faced with this somewhat challenging condition, in his 10-year Plan PMG Louis DeJoy chose not to take steps to correct it but, instead, proposed a workaround: reduce service standards to compensate for the widespread underperformance of USPS processing facilities. To outsiders, particularly for commercial mailers and their clients in whose world sub-par performance would not be accommodated, DeJoy’s avoidance strategy seems curious at the least, if not outright inept.

In The Plan and otherwise, DeJoy has made no secret of his conclusion that the Postal Service’s current circumstances are, at least in part, the result of failures by his predecessors and their executive teams to take the necessary steps to run the USPS with precision – his favorite term. However, despite his fault-finding about past PMGs’ failures, his approach isn’t to do better, but to simply give himself an easier standard of performance.

Moreover, if precision is what he intends to instill in postal operations, if he’ll implement the fundamental operational and management discipline that would be essential, or ensure managers understand and use the data tools developed for and provided to them, then why can’t that enable achievement of the service standards now in place?

If DeJoy’s perspective is correct – that past executives failed to run the USPS correctly (i.e., with precision) and consequently enabled failure for years to meet the service standards they set for the USPS – it would seem consistent that, conversely, a properly managed and operating USPS would be more capable of meeting those standards.

Even accepting that premise as less than certain, it would seem reasonable to at least get USPS operations running as they should first, to at least try, before dismissing any service standards as “unattainable.”

In his days running a logistics company, if DeJoy found his operations weren’t meeting service commitments, would he relax those commitments to a more easily achieved level, or would he demand action to get his managers, employees, and facilities running as he wants so that they would meet expectations? Likely he would follow the latter course.

Therefore, why is DeJoy letting USPS operations off the hook, and giving it a free pass to provide degraded service to customers? If he sees himself fixing his predecessors’ failures, he should make USPS operations run as they failed to do, not simply set a lower target for himself and declare victory.

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