"Because we said so": The unassailable logic of postal managers
March 19, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
”Postal Service has a Board of Governors appointed by the President of the United States (appointments are governed by statute requiring even partisan distribution), but in a very real sense they are accountable to no one. They pretty much cannot be fired, and because it is Congress that sets the rules, the idea of accountability is even further diluted. The members of the BOG tend to be political insiders with no special knowledge of postal issues and in some cases only marginal experience in managing a large entity.
The primary and identifying characteristic of the postal network is that it is an infrastructure. Any deviation from this essential characteristic undermines the reason the Postal Service exists. The leaders of the Postal Service want to deny this fundamental reality, and they have committed themselves to dismantling the infrastructure by selling off post office buildings, preparing to close half the country’s post offices, and downsizing the mail processing network through an ill-conceived consolidation plan. In so doing, they are abdicating their responsibilities to the American people.
Corporatizing the postal services of the United States has been a tragic error, an ill-defined step towards privatizing an essential governmental function that is something much more than merely a delivery service. The current focus of senior postal leadership, abetted by some in Congress and cheered on by some in industry, fails to grasp the fundamental purpose and reason for the Postal Service. One need only examine some of the submissions by the Postal Service in cases before the Postal Regulatory Commission. Often their arguments are circular and rely on manicured data to support a predetermined conclusion.
When challenged, the Postal Service often arrogantly asserts that no one, other than itself and its own experts, could possibly arrive at the correct answer. An example of this would be the treatment of Donny Hobbs, an Iowa mayor who testified about the meaning and value of the post office to his community. The Postal Service responded to his testimony by saying that without reams of data and a number of studies, Mr. Hobbs couldn’t possibly know his community and its needs as well as they did
And what of the Postal Service’s vaunted studies, surveys, and data? In many cases it appears that the studies are much more limited than advertised, that their conclusions are predetermined, and that the data behind them are questionable. In other cases the Postal Service simply ignores or refuses to collect data that would damage its assertions and conclusions.
For example, when the Postal Service closes a post office, it assumes all the revenue will simply migrate to neighboring post office, but has the Postal Service ever bothered to examine the revenues at the neighbor offices to see if any revenue was lost? And what of the market survey on revenue losses that might result from the combined effects of closing thousands of post offices, eliminating Saturday delivery, and reducing service standards? One moment the Postal Service says it didn’t do such a study, and the next moment it says they never completed it.
The Postal Service makes its own managers; it doesn’t attract outside talent or fresh thinking. Instead, it takes an ambitious person and imprints and inculcates the values of the system into the individual. It is a closed system that rewards compliance, obeisance, and a willingness to overlook any evidence that contradicts the organization’s message.
The consequence of this closed system is that ideas and processes don’t get challenged. Once a policy has been determined by HQ, it is promulgated down the line. Once a target has been set, it is carved in stone, regardless of realities. I have watched a plant manager run the same mail through a machine over and over because someone above set a target and there was no correct response or answer other than to make that number.
The Postal Service loses millions of dollars in grievances every year, not because unions are petty or nitpicky, but because managers arrogantly ignore contracts or fail to properly document policies and procedures. Why? Because in such a closed system, the capacity for self-evaluation becomes non-existent. “We said so” becomes sufficient justification for any action.
If anyone ever cared to do a study, to listen to the thousands of stories of employees being bullied or berated for failing to meet unreasonable targets or goals, to find out why it becomes so hard to fire bad employees (a clue, it isn’t the unions but rather a management system that simply doesn’t manage), they would come away with a picture of a closed, stagnant system where information and consequence are unidirectional.
It is time we disposed of this ridiculous fiction that the Postal Service is a corporate entity, which, unleashed from regulation, would thrive and be productive and profitable. The Postal Service is essential infrastructure providing opportunity to every American. It is an institution that protects and preserves our fundamental values about the free, unimpeded flow of information. It is a benign and useful presence in every community, and it connects citizens in a positive way to their government. It is an institution that provides important and necessary redundancy, allowing us the capability to go to every address every day — a capability that enhances and ensures our security.
The Postal Service can be successful without turning into a private corporation. What is hampering the Postal Service is a failure of vision: It is clouded by self-referential, self-justifying, insular thinking that sees success in terms of abandoning the universal service obligation
The Postal Service desperately needs reform legislation. That legislation must start with the premise that postal services and the postal network are essential national infrastructure. That legislation must recognize that the Postal Service is all about service and not about acting “like a business” or, as the new five-year business plan is entitled, implementing a “Plan to Profitability.”
The Postal Service is not a business, and it’s not supposed to be profitable in the short-sighted corporate sense of the word. The Postal Service is supposed to serve the interests of the American people — all of us. That mission, that service, when accomplished well, may be the very highest definition of profitability.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
LETTER OF WARNING FOR MISSED MSP SCAN IN THE POSTAL SERVICE
Today I received the following award from the U.S. Postal Service:
RE: Official Letter of Warning (LOW) issued to Dale Lund on above date
To Whom it may concern:
When told that I would be receiving this LOW, I threw out two questions. Neither required an answer, for the answers were obvious and known by both the supervisor and myself. The first question was: “Do you think I missed these scans intentionally?” The second was: “Do you think that warning a man in his sixties never to forget again is reasonable?”
Hand-held scanners are relatively new to the Postal Service, being a nightmare and a nuisance to carriers from the beginning. Some scanning actually does provide a service, e.g. delivery confirmation, but MSP scanning is simply to inform district management what time each carrier gets to certain points on the route and if he/she did in fact pick up outgoing mail from a collection box after the given collection time. In effect, the carrier is obligated to assist management in spying on the carrier. As this LOW points out, “MSP scans are being made in an attempt to provide consistent/timely delivery of the mail.” In other words, if not for using these hand-held scanners to scan various bar-codes inside mailboxes, etc. throughout the route, the carrier’s work and delivery would be erratic and irresponsible. Having worked for the United States Postal Service 24 years, it’s my experience that carriers are just as responsible, regular, diligent and hard-working as ever, except that now they feel as though they’re not trusted. So morale is lower.
The LOW states that I have “failed to follow instructions on MSP scanning, which causes customers’ loss of confidence in our ability to provide good service.” This is bunk. I am as conscientious as possible about following instructions, but the major bunk is the second part of the statement. People don’t give a large rodent’s posterior about MSP scans in regards to service (delivery confirmations excepted). All some know is that there’s a weird, bar-code sticker put inside the mailbox they struggled to set up in accordance to postal regulations--the box they had to buy but that the USPS claims as its property. They see the carrier come by, open their box, put mail in, then scan the bar-code, and they wonder about it. I don’t think the term “service” enters their mind concerning this.
Also, several times, someone has noticed me scanning the blue pickup box downtown after emptying it, and has asked me something like, “Do they make you do that to prove you’ve picked it up?” My response is, “Yes, they don’t trust us, but they expect you to.” I don’t think “service” comes to mind here either.
We all forget at times. We’re human (SURPRISE!). Collection box scans can be checked later by the carrier, but other MSP scans cannot be. And so these scans must be remembered or missed; there’s no turning back. Occasionally carriers miss a scan--they forget, usually due to distraction--and only a fool would think these misses are intentional. More and more work, in these hard times, is piled on each carrier. As route length increases, so does time pressure. Carriers on the street are distracted constantly, yet are both conscientious and skilled in overcoming these obstacles. But they are not perfect, nor will they ever be. It’s sad that USPS management (especially district management) has become so twisted as to consider the scanning of a bar-code more important than accurate mail delivery and, yes, more important than service.
This LOW is inaccurate. It mentions my missing only one MSP scan, when actually I missed two within a couple weeks, which is very rare for me. My good scanning record has been commended several times by my supervisors. What a mean fellow I am to have missed these scans now! And, if I miss one more within 30 days, “more severe disciplinary action” will be taken against me. “Such action may include suspensions, reduction in grade and/or pay, or removal from the Postal Service”!
Even murder, if unintentional, is reduced to involuntary manslaughter and can avoid serious punishment. While Christ was being intentionally tortured and killed by crucifixion, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How wicked I am to forget to scan a bar-code!
If I were to promise never to forget again, I would be as unreasonable as this LOW. But I do promise to continue to do my best, as I have for 24 years in the USPS. And I do indeed promise never to miss another MSP scan after March 31st of this year. Most employees who do their best receive a commendation at retirement. I receive a Letter of Warning.
This letter is to be attached to the Letter of Warning.
[On March 23, 2011, my supervisor, Jeff Campbell, called me over to his desk to "witness something." He showed me the Letter of Warning and my letter in response to it. He then put them together and fed them into the shredding machine. After the letters were no more, he turned to me, smiled, and shook my hand.]