By Mark Rheaume
There is no other way to look at it: The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is a “Data Beast.” I have written in past articles that I believe the USPS has become a data organization that delivers mail and that it is working diligently to harness the data it captures.
I once read that the USPS has 33 petabytes of storage capacity. Not knowing what a petabyte was, I looked it up to find that this capacity is the equivalent of 33 million gigabytes or playing 83,000 years of songs on an MP3 with no repeats. That is indeed a great amount of storage capacity, so capacity is certainly not an issue. What has been an issue is making the data actionable and meaningful in ways that deliver value to the industry.
Primarily, this data can be used to improve USPS operations, and that is where it is leveraging it first. Knowing where the “pinch points” are is valuable to any organization. In an organization as complex, integrated, process-driven, and simply as vast as the USPS, this becomes even more important.
Using data from the many facilities in its network to proactively diagnose and correct issues is essential. Recent service issues caused by the change in its operational window are a prime example. The disruption has been significant and only now is the USPS able to utilize data to improve its service on all mail to meet and exceed their service standards and goals.
At a recent meeting of the Mailers' Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC), the USPS presented information on its recent service performance that was less than flattering. In every category presented, the USPS had slipped in performance compared to its Same Period Last Year (SPLY) marks and its own performance goals.
The USPS has had a dramatic increase in the volume of mail that is now being measured—which it credits the industry for helping it achieve. I believe this is also part of the data issue. Industry has long complained about delivery- and service-related issues. I also believe that the USPS is now seeing what industry has been saying all along. It now admits to, and owns the fact that its service performance has not been improving and its own data confirms this.
The good news is that it is dedicated to changing this, and I believe it will be successful because of the data it can now share across its network.
Given the magnitude of its volume—yes, even though mail volumes are down they are still massive—and the relative autonomy its network facilities have operated under in the past, the USPS is very wise to start gathering and using the data it captures at various points in its process.
The agency knows this. It has had the data for years, but that data was disjointed and lacked cohesiveness that would enable effective action. Worse, it lacked timeliness to make it actionable, which led to inefficient and ineffective processes that were not uniformly enforced or applied.
By contrast, the data today is timely and accurate. It has allowed the USPS to build and expect accountability across its network. Further, it has provided at least a framework of how to become more “nimble” across a massive network that previously operated as independent facilities. It is not my purpose to say the USPS did not have rules or was purposely inefficient. I understand that any organization of its size that did not have timely and accurate data would certainly have inefficient processes and programs in place. Anyone saying differently is wrong.
Only recently has this data been provisioned on a unified platform. This has allowed USPS management to see a realistic picture of its operational network and view it in a way that benefits the agency. It can react to capacity issues before they affect service performance. For instance, it can reroute mail from facilities where capacity is an issue to others where capacity exists or it can reroute mail in the event of a disaster that in the past was not “visible” to it in terms of scope or even service performance commitments.
I personally marvel at the information the USPS extracts from this data. I am a “glass half full” type of person and am encouraged to see metrics by facility and process that drive improvement and standard processing of mail.
This all translates into better performance, but also takes all of the anecdotal issues out of the equation. The USPS has documentation of what time mail arrived, when it was accepted, and when it was processed. If there are exceptions, someone is held accountable, which is very important.
There is a focus on facilities that regularly underperform and the USPS is working with them to improve. It also now sees the facilities that do great work and consistently outperform the rest of the network, and it is working with them to see what processes can be shared with other facilities to help them and drive continuous improvement.
While my glass is half full, my glasses are not rose colored. Challenges remain. The biggest challenge I see is the number of contractors serving the different silos within the USPS. There are times as I listen to all the plans related to programming and data that I am reminded of that old Johnny Cash song about the Cadillac he stole as an assembly line worker, “One Piece at a Time.” (Check out the video on YouTube.)
The USPS has to protect against building all of the individual parts of its data system in its disparate silos. It has neither the time nor the financial resources for mistakes. What it builds has to work together seamlessly, and in an organization of its size that is difficult to do at best. Like Johnny’s Cadillac, I do not care if it is pretty, but I want it to be functional and serve its intended purpose.
In my mind, we are at a critical juncture. To date, I would say the USPS has done an excellent job of realizing the power of the data it is now collecting and using. The next phase will determine how effectively it can move forward and support its business and the industry it serves.
At this time, I trust that it is moving in the right direction. Time will tell how effective this effort will be. If done properly, it will be able to support network consolidations with hard data that no one will be able to refute. And it will be able to measure its true costs properly and allocate them appropriately across its services to price its products accurately.
The possibilities from there are endless. Simplified rate structures, better competitive capabilities, proper staffing across its network, and less second guessing from our governmental officials about every move it makes to transform into the business it should be allowed to be. If successful, the USPS will be well equipped for the next battle over Postal Reform. Its data will support the actions it wishes to implement.
People may hate to admit that they know what they need, but they do. They have learned well over the years and industry associations have facilitated and expedited their knowledge. Without input from the mailers and the associations they represent none of this would have happened.
The USPS has made great progress with regard to data and is on track to achieve even more. Industry has long advocated for the things that are coming to fruition and in my opinion, the future looks bright.
Mark Rheaume is the National Postal Affairs Director & Partnership Liaison Officer at AccuZIP, Inc. (www.accuzip.com), Atascadero, Calif. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. A national software company, AccuZIP has provided feature rich solutions to manage Contact Data Quality, Address Hygiene, USPS Postal Presorting and Compliance and Mail Tracking and Reporting for over two decades. Its solutions are used by many industry verticals to streamline, standardize and simplify processes associated with data entry, data management and multi-channel communications.
About AccuZIP, Inc.
AccuZIP, Inc., a national software company based in Atascadero, CA, provides feature rich solutions to manage Contact Data Quality, Address Hygiene, USPS Postal Presorting and Compliance and Mail Tracking and Reporting. Our solutions are designed to be utilized across many industry verticals to streamline, standardize and simplify processes associated with data entry, data management and multi-channel communications. AccuZIP products and services make it easier for businesses to get their message out to the right people at the right location when they need to most. Now in our third decade of doing business, the company has built an outstanding reputation for value, service and innovation. For more information visit www.accuzip.com .
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