Friday, October 7, 2016

Why The Post Office Loses Money (And will continue to do so)

Our friendly neighborhood post office
When was the last time you went to one of these? Are you like me and hold off that trip as long as possible? The time before last, when I went to my "nearest" post office, there was a long line in the middle of the day, only two windows were open and in 15 minutes not one person had moved. By the time I left, the line had doubled in size.

Since I was heading east anyway, a friend and I stopped at the next available post office. There was a line there as well but at least it moved. It was a sobering experience to say the least.

Post Office patrons waiting, waiting, and ... waiting
However what really got me mad was my experience yesterday when documents I needed for a loan had to be sent to an escrow office 90 miles away. As usual this was the sight - long lines yet again. It too was at a relatively, at least to my mind, dull part of the day. Not only did the line look like this but there was only one person behind the counter. Yup one and he was busy yucking it up with a woman at the counter.

To add insult to injury you were greeted at the door with another employee with a pad of paper questions. It was a list of things that she asked you. Each answer was checked off and when done, she handed the slip to you and told you to present it to the clerk behind the counter. What made it even more infuriating was that he took his time behind the counter and she waited in the lobby for the next patron. We all just stood there. It would seem to me that her services would have been better served behind the counter not as an order taker that waited for the next patron.

Then this clerk, when done with his customer, just left. There was no one behind the counter. We all looked at each other, then the paper taker and back at each other. One person left but two or three more entered the line. Finally, after 5 minutes (the post office thoughtfully had a clock so you can watch time fly, or not, as you wait in line) he returned and took the next patron.

I don't know what that paper did because lo and behold, he too asked many of the same questions. When I finally got there I pointed this out but he said he was required to. So ... what was the use of the woman waiting around asking questions if they were going to be asked anyway? She would have been better utilized behind the counter rather than standing around. I can tell already, Christmas is going to be a joy at the post office here in the Coachella Valley. It is this kind of behavior that drives businesses and patrons to seek other means ... notably FedEx and UPS. There are many in Congress who have voiced the same observations as they all make money and the post office loses billions every year!

IRS call that took 56+ minutes
before I could talk to an agent
Of coarse much of this has to do with the system itself. Have you ever dealt with the DMV, stood in line at the post office, dealt with any city, county, state or federal agency and not waited? I received a letter from the IRS that sent me into a panic. I had already been dunned over $5,000 in owed taxes that my accountant found was incorrect. It appears it can take up to 90 days for the IRS to post a check if you owe taxes. So now what? I even took a phone snapshot of my wait time (left). The lady was very nice but today, Oct. 6, 2016 I still have not received the documents I requested last month after a 56 minute wait.

Civil servants, who have protections that are far above and beyond those enjoyed in the private sector, seem to relish making you wait ... in person, on the phone even in answering letters or email. The bigger the line, the slower they get and the longer you wait. Truly, doing business with them is like watching time go backwards. There is no incentive, at least in their minds, salary and benefits aside, that gives them incentive. I know people who would kill for their jobs.

Many people are unaware that when the I-10 freeway collapsed in West LA, after the Northridge Earthquake, CalTrans, our highway building / maintenance program said that it would take from 6 - 9 months to repair the broken overpass that collapsed onto the freeway. Traffic was a nightmare as you had to get off the freeway via a ramp onto city streets, wind your way to the next good ramp and proceed going west towards Santa Monica. The city fathers soon discovered they were losing millions (money turns the crank) as freight lines, trucks and anyone moving anything tried to find other solutions. The daily commute was a nightmare. The cost of moving goods through the city skyrocketed. Everyone was up in arms. The thought of up to 9 months of this? Deplorable.

In their desperation they put out bids and incentivized any company that was awarded a bid that they would get $1 million a day bonus for every day they beat their estimate. A bid was let to a private firm that said 90 days. That sure beat the at least 6 month estimate by Cal Trans so they got the bid. The upshot? It was completed in 61 days. Even better than it was before and became a model for every retrofitted overpass in the Los Angeles basin.

Is the Post Office an anachronism? In this day and age with everyone sending emails ... even fancy ones are available in just about any email software program, who uses them? Junk mailers for sure, politicians, solicitations, utility bills, a stray birthday card and packages. But ... for how much longer? With Amazon playing with drones to deliver goods, you wonder if the post office's days are numbered. For any package too large for a drone there is always UPS and FedEx. Sure they aren't as cheap as the post office but they are fast and pretty reliable and would ultimately save taxpayers from bloated salaries, too many workers with unusually high costs and no way to get employees to work smarter. However, my experience with UPS and their franchise stores shows a lot of improvement is needed there too. Its a sad day when you know more than the guy behind the counter! UPS needs to tighten their training and then keep checking it is being followed.

How, you may ask, is this design. Design covers every aspect of our lives. Be it a pretty brochure, the trip that we take and yes, the someone who designed the very processes that are being followed in delivering our mail. That original post office was started in the 1700's by Ben Franklin. At one time, it was the most efficient postal delivery system in the world. It was a wonder, but like many of our institutions developed over the years, there have been resisted improvements over the years. I was witness to this in college. The linotype hot lead type of printing was replaced by cold type offset printing, then desktop printing that put the control of the page layout with the editors stopping the need for as many press room employees. Newspapers have failed because they lost their way in presenting the news. Marshall McLuhan, media guru in the 60's, would have welcomed the digital age as he said so famously, "The medium is the message." New processes, new techniques! I think that Ole Ben would have wrapped his arms around a computer ... anything that could get information from here to there instantly. The lack of speed was the Bain of his existence!

Thank you for reading my blog. Please, take the time to explore earlier blogs where the emphasis here and always is to explore the ways design and art affects our lives ... and always has. 

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