Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The De-Automation of Periodicals Mail

Jim O’Brien of Time Inc., who is in his third decade studying the Postal Service’s “automation refugees,” makes a startling statement in a guest article for the blog run by the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General:

“More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline,” wrote O’Brien, widely recognized as a leading expert on the U.S. Postal Service's handling of Periodicals mail.

Magazine publishers have put lots of energy and resources into making our publications more suited to the Postal Service’s sorting equipment. We’ve participated in co-mail to create more carrier-route bundles, moved mail from sacks to pallets, turned our addresses upside down in preparation for the Flats Sequencing System, and are converting our tabloids to other formats to comply with the “droop” test.

But more than ever, according to O’Brien, postal facilities are letting the machines sit idle while employees handle newspapers and magazines (and, presumably, catalogs) manually. These employees are "automation refugees" – whom O'Brien describes as “mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations when automation eliminated the work they had been doing.” So much for using automation to decrease the Postal Service's costs.

Rather than addressing the problem, postal officials complain that they're losing so much money on Periodicals that they need to jack up our rates. How about acknowledging that there are too many mail-processing employees and offering them a decent incentive to retire early?

“How can the Postal Service continue to imply that Periodicals mailers are responsible for the cost coverage problem when mailers have substantially and consistently increased Periodicals worksharing?” O’Brien wrote in the blog published yesterday. “The Postal Service should NOT be permitted to continue using Periodicals class mail processing as a dumping ground for its excess labor and the associated costs.”

The Postal Regulatory Commission also indicated yesterday that it might finally realize something is fishy about the Postal Service’s cost accounting for Periodicals. Rather than ruling on whether Periodicals rates are out of compliance with a law that requires each class of mail to break even, it held off doing anything until it receives the in-progress "Joint Report" on Periodicals cost coverage. (But it also hinted that major increases in Periodicals bundle and container rates are in order.)

For further information on the matter of automation refugees and how the USPS’s flawed accounting methods might lead to big rate increases for magazines, newspapers (and perhaps catalogs), please see:


Anonymous said...

Here I thought Congress had singled out Periodicals for preferred treatment. Silly me.

Drewk86a said...

It seems Mr. O'Brien made several flawed assumptions in drawing his conclusions. Mr. O'Brien wrote:

"mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations...manual processing seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb employees" Not true. Upgrades in automation have systematically reduced the number of manual positions. In the 90's which Mr. O'Brien refers to my facility had over 90 manual postions. Today we have less than 25.

"the flat sorting machines always seemed to be down...We were able to see the “bullpens” where mail processing employees manually tossed bundles of periodicals into rolling containers." Mr. O'Brien erroneously assumed that these "bullpens" were sorting operations performing manual sortation of flats. Again, he is wrong. The "bullpens" consists of mailhandler employess who prepare the flats for sortation on the machine. The mailhandlers combine like bundles that run on the same scheme program. Without this prep work, the FSM could not process the flats.

"Fast forward to 2010. More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline." Again if he considers bullpen prep work "manually processing" flats, then he is wrong. Also - upon what does he base his declaration that productivity is declining? I see no studies, figures or USPS reports to support that claim.

Dead Tree Edition is always a good read, but Mr. O'Brien's smear attack is unsubstantiated and merely an opinion based on flawed assumptions. It should not be accepted as Gospel.

Anonymous said...

Drewk86a- well said! All these people with the wrong conclusions. It's amazing. If you truely know the facts Mr. O'Brien please post.

Jim O'Brien said...

Here are a couple of quick facts to support of my blog posting. The Postal Service's CRA data showed that the average cost for manual sorting of a Periodical flat increased by 28.23% between FY 2008 and FY 2009. During this same period, the average cost attributed for sequencing flats by carriers increased by 19%. No one has been able to explain to the industry how these costs rose by such significant amounts during a period when flats volume and weight declined.

As far as Drewk86a's comments are concerned, the bullpens that we saw in 1998 were for bundle processing, not piece processing. I was NOT referring to the MODS code O30 mail prep operations for the flat sorter machines.

If Drewk86a were a mailer, I guarantee that he would be concerned about a 28% cost increase in a single year. I also think that taking the same number of man hours to sort a smaller universe of flat volume is a clear indicator of a productivity decline.

I'm not saying that what Drewk86a is seeing in his facility is not valid, but I am saying that something is very wrong with the costing system and how manual processing costs and/or excess personnel are being attributed to Periodicals mail.

Anonymous said...

Have any of these "experts' ever worked at a postal facility? 15 minutes of WORKING at a postal facility will trump 100 years of Watching.I have never read so many inaccurate assumptions, or what passes as accepted fact. All of you are totally clueless as to actual postal operations. Go Work there for ONE day, and a blind man could see the problems. Unbelievable!