Monday, July 30, 2018

Failed Sequencing System: No Wonder USPS Still Hasn't Fixed the FSS

If ignorance is bliss, as the old saying claims, then the U.S. Postal Service must be in a truly blissful state about its billion-dollar Flats Sequencing System.

The USPS Office of Inspector General released a report last week claiming:
• Postal management doesn’t know whether the 10-year-old FSS is saving money or work hours.

• Sorting catalogs, magazines and other flat mail on FSS machines costs 6 cents per piece, versus 2 cents for the older Automated Flats Sorting Machines. In theory, the USPS could be making that up in improved efficiency at the delivery units, but “the Postal Service does not have any current information about carrier work-hour savings related to FSS processing.”

• The Postal Service doesn’t seem to be doing anything to track, understand, or correct one of the FSS’s biggest problems – flat mail that is supposed to be sorted on the football-field-sized machines but is instead processed on the AFSMs or manually. An in-depth study of five Atlantic Coast FSS facilities found an average “leakage” rate of 23%. (Dead Tree Edition’s opinion is that such a high leakage rate makes it virtually impossible for the FSS to achieve net savings. More on that below.)

• When FSS facilities receive mail that can’t be run on the machines, they simply divert it to other means of sorting without reporting the problem. That means there is no feedback to those who could prevent such problems from recurring – such as mailers, printers, and the postal employees who write or enforce flat-mail specifications.

“Processing flats mail on AFSM machines and having the carriers manually sequence the flats may be less expensive than processing flats using FSS machines,” says the report -- a statement USPS management called “unsupported,” without providing contrary evidence.

“Given the significant investment in these machines and their poor performance . . ., management needs to fully understand all the costs associated with the machines to best inform its decision going forward,” the Inspector General’s report says.

Productivity of the machines themselves is not an issue, the report indicates. The 18 Capital Metro Area (Maryland to Georgia) FSS machines average throughputs per labor hour during the 15-month study period exceed the goal of 1,650 by 1%.

But because of leakage and declining volumes, the machines are underutilized. The machines were run an average of 12.5 hours per day rather than the goal of 17 hours.

Who's minding the leakage?
At all five FSS sites the OIG staff visited, “flats mail was removed from FSS preparation areas because it could not be processed on the FSS due to its thickness, size, or unreadable address or barcode.” Such out-of-spec issues are supposed to be documented so that postal officials can work with mailers to prevent the problems from recurring.

USPS's FSS Vision in 2011
“None of the five facilities we visited used the electronic Mail Improvement Reporting (eMIR) system, as required, to report the flats mail problems we observed,” the report says.

“Management at four of the five facilities we visited said that prior eMIR system reports did not resolve mail problems.”

“During the audit, we repeatedly asked management to provide quantitative data categorizing the leakage causes. Although management informed us they had that information, nothing was provided. In addition, management expects mail processing facilities to optimize their processing windows to minimize leakage; however, without knowing the specific cause(s) of leakage, processing facility management may not be able to mitigate leakage.”

In response, USPS management indicated that late deliveries to the FSS facilities were a major cause of leakage. Each FSS facility processes flat mail in a predetermined order, it explained, so when a shipment arrives for ZIP codes that have already been sorted, the mail is diverted to other sorting processes.

(But do the people scheduling the deliveries know which ones are consistently problematic, so that they can adjust the schedules? And here’s a radical thought: Instead of considering a delivery one hour late for today’s processing, why not consider it 23 hours early – for tomorrow’s processing? That way, it can be run on the FSS, as intended.)

Strategy: We goof, you pay
Mail that is prepared in the proper sequence for FSS machines cannot then easily be sorted on AFSMs or manually. That makes FSS leakage copies a sort of worst-case scenario: The USPS’s costs for delivering them are inherently more expensive than for mail that has been prepared for and actually sorted by AFSMs or manually.

What’s even worse is that, if not for FSS, at least half of those copies probably would have been prepared in carrier-route bundles, a nearly best-case scenario for the Postal Service.

No matter how well the 77% of non-leakage mail is handled by the FSS machines, it can’t make up for the huge incremental costs of sorting the 23% of FSS mail that is diverted to other sorting methods. The Postal Service’s strategy for the FSS has been to ignore the problems while trying to pass along the costs to customers in the form of emergency rate hikes.

For further reading:


Anonymous said...

I work on the FSS. The FSS is a good system. Postal Management screws it up.

The audit didn't catch the carrier sorted mail run on the FSS to get numbers up, that gets screwed up, that the carriers have to fix.

The audit didn't catch when we changed sortplans, but mail was still coming in sorted for the.old sort plans. We were running massive out of sortplans on pretty much every run until that got fixed.

The audit didn't catch that a certain mailer had a barcode intended for use in their stores near the address barcode. FSS identified that as a "special service barcode" and sorted accordingly instead of carrier sorting. Went on for a few months before it got fixed.

Ken Schoentag said...

I agree that Postal Management is to blame for the poor performance of the FSS system. When I retired I was a contractor that worked on the FSS system for over five years during its development. The main problem throughout that period was the management on the Postal side. There were constant change orders during development and failure of management to adequately train employees. At the test sites they would constantly move employees around instead of adequately training them. I retired after 39 years in the Postal Service and the biggest problem with the Postal Service over that period was the constantly changing management at the top echelons of the service. Every time a new PMG came the focus and thrust of the Postal Service changed as well as the problem of PCES management changes. The craft employees in the Postal Service are hard working good employees for the most part. I can't say that for a large segment of management. Too many of the PCES managers were more concerned with their bonuses than treating their employees fairly. Loyalty is a two way street and too often it was in actuality a one way street from District, Area and Headquarters staff. The Postal Service has constantly struggled with the proper balance between training and productivity. Today offices are micro managed and demands on supervisors and managers (where the rubber meets the road) are often ridiculous. Managers and supervisors are then put in a no win situation with their employees. Do more with less and be happy, and make sure that everyone completes their yearly employee human resource questionnaire. As a former Postmaster of a large office (Level 26) with a large complement of carriers I can honestly say I feel sorry for our employees both craft and management. The failure of the FSS program is one of many that can and should be laid at the feet of Postal Management. Automation has come a long way from the SPLSM's that were in use in 1965 when I started as a clerk or the Cushman 3 Wheelers we were still using in 1970 when I came back to the Post Office after my service in Viet Nam. We gave away the parcel business through short sited management, we developed the over night business and failed to capitalize on that again through management that was short sighted and would not recognize the future. In the early 70's we experimented with email letters again we dropped the ball on that. Oh we also failed to move on what later became "Stamps.Com." In my opinion and again it is my opinion the management structure that evolved into the EAS and PCES is a complete failure. I worked with some great managers and a few great PCES officers the one thing they all had in common was they were team players and they cared about their employees and the Postal Service.

Unknown said...

This isn't just an FSS problem. The USPS has the same problem with DBCS for letters, and this is a much older system. While a new system is in the works for letters, there is no guarantee that it will be any better, and USPS will probably fudge the numbers on that as well in order to make themselves look better.

Anonymous said...

This is a moot point. Flat volume is dropping 10% per year, so there's no real interest in improving flat mech productivity. Too much money has already been wasted on the FSS given that in a few years there won't be enough flat volume to justify having the Plants carrier route it.

As for the comment about the DB's there's no need for faster machines there either. The new DB's need (far) less people to operate and aren't limited in how many delivery points they can handle. That's all that's needed given the continuing drop in letter volume.

I see the usual "Management sucks" attitude here (and no, I'm a tech, not EAS) but I've seen both Craft and Management sides of things over the last 40 years and most of the complainers on each side wouldn't last a week switching places. Each side thinks the other is filled with lazy, dishonest non-workers and no amount of reason can wipe that sour attitude away. Sad.

Anonymous said...

I am a retired rural carrier who had FSS since the Post Office put it in. It was and still is a waste of time and money. The money spent on the machines is a big waste. The majority of the routes in our office did not get many flats in their FSS. I would say a majority of the time a average for most routes would be 3 to 4 trays. My route was a extremely heavy route with flats because I served a very wealthy neighborhood that was targeted for catalogs. I would have an average of 3 to 4 times the trays FSS than other routes in the office and have had as many as 28 to 30 on certain days when the area had a mass mailing. Because the parcels were so heavy with Amazon and the lack of clerks sorting them most days the FSS was cased by the carriers except on my route some days there was not enough room in the case to case it. At any given time the same flats that were run one day would be sent raw and tagged not acceptable for FSS. My evaluation was shot because the 43 piece a minute was totally wrong. The time did not include the time it took to move trays from the back of the truck to the front. The trays were not the right size and did not fit the mail tray. To take so many bundles to the street as they wanted you to there was only room for 1 tray of FSS at a time. With 43 pieces a minute you had to move trays constantly. The trays were not full and would not stack on top of each other when you had so many. They would slide around and you had to stack parcels on top of them for room. When you had to move trays you had to rearrange parcels. There was also the problem of where to put empty trays when your LLV was full. Plus having to bring back mail for holds, forwards, misspent, and out of order mail. You spent even more time in the office when you got back. It was a terrible mistake at the cost of the carrier's who spent way to much time on the street. The Post Office would have talks saying don't be distracted but working out of so many bundles was distracting. I have spent 8 hours on the route delivering when I was forced to take DPS, and FSS to the street along with a boxholder. No way to make evaluation taking that much to the street. Also forcing newer carriers to take it to the street that have no idea who has a forward or even who lives at a address. Customers were not given good service and carriers are being worn down from being on the street in vehicles that are old without air conditioning in the summer or proper heat in the winter. Taking also consideration that the same carriers may not have public restrooms on their routes. I had a 24 mile route with 1 public restroom. These carriers have been told do not finger mail with vehicle moving but I can assure you that any carrier who was able to make evaluation by taking all the mail to the street had to finger the mail as they moved. The Post Office did not monitor carriers that were fast. As long as the mail was delivered fast they turn a blind eye. Until there is a accident or someone gets hurt or dies on the route nothing is done.

Unknown said...

Very well said!

Anonymous said...

I had to retire from the USPS after 32 years of service, 27 of them as a Supervisor. the Problem is ignoring important issues and passing the buck to another supervisor. in 1993 PMG Marvin Runyon tried to cut the Middle Management, but I saw in my Last Post Office in Allentown PA where we used to run operations with 4 supervisors that the number of supervisors was increased to 8 and 9. many of them just sitting down instead of walking and checking carrier's work performance. many times 4 supervisors just sitting around a desk laughing and eating early in the morning, no sign of the manager either. I believe privatization is the answer so the USPS can run with responsible supervisors and less restriction of Disciplinary Action. too many cooks in the kitchen.