Designed to Fail: the Postal Service

I’m not a whinger, far from it. But there are some topics I cannot budge on. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work. Service design is one of the areas that I’ve recently come to be interested in9, as a key component of the soft infrastructure of the city. A service is ‘invisible’ or rather temporal but services, i.e. a sequence of behaviours that facilitate transactions between individuals, are really the DNA of cities. I will spare you the motherhood statement that all cities are about exchange of goods and ideas, but that’s the crux of it. We get together to make transactions.

In the past year, I’ve noticed that the faltering financial health of the US postal service was getting quite a bit of air time. The New York Times investigated the then-current state of affairs of one of America’s longest standing service providers. The whole country was on the edge of its seat as the news came out that the postal service was on the verge of bankruptcy. We’ve known tough times before but it feels unprecedented that something as fundamental and basic as the postal service was on the verge of getting the can. The report paints a fairly fatalistic picture of the future of the service, its forced service cuts and the associated job losses.

The main argument put forward is that email has largely replaced the need for real mail, which I suspect to some extent is true. I can’t say I will miss the days when you could only get things done through writing letters (not that I was around for many of them…). But I argue that there is a much more fundamental reason why their business is not thriving. After all, the meteoric rise of online shopping should have been a godsend for most postal services. Lots of demand indeed. Instead, you’ll find many retailers opting for private operators such as DHL and TNT, mainly because they get things to their destination quickly and offer more traceability. But also, and fundamentally, because the postal service is ironically not at all customer-centric.

First off, there is no way for customers to know a parcel might be arriving. This is a complete stab in the dark on behalf of the postal delivery staff. Having recently had a lot of time to spend at home over the recent Xmas break, I came to the depressing realisation that delivery vans no longer carry packages, but rather rafts of ‘missed delivery’ cards, ready to be slotted into your postbox. On the one hand I think, ‘are you kidding me?’, you don’t even bring the things you are hired to drop off? On the other, I think: ‘Can you blame the poor guys whose job it is to continually get no answer at the door bell?’

I’ve tried many tactics to try to avoid this absurd predicament of being at home, waiting for a parcel and seeing the van drive off without having rung your doorbell. Most recently, I tried to get my parcels forwarded to another address but I found out to my great despair, that parcels and mail run on separate systems, therefore making it completely impossible for you to actively avoid the wild goose chase that is home delivery. Short of changing your whole address, your parcels are doomed to be sent back overseas, incurring another 30-40 dollar postage fee. Ridiculous!

It may sound like I am on a rant but actually, the fundamental architecture of this problem is that the postal service is plagued with the legacy of a pre-digital service. Instead of exploring the opportunities to enhance the service through real-time information and information sharing, the postal service rejects modernity, as if a direct threat to its existence. The fact is, the postal service barely deserves the badge of a service. There is nothing convenient about having to take time out of a busy day to queue up in a busy Australia Post outlet, amongst the mountains of useless products they store. This amazes me: anything from children’s books (in case you’d forgotten to send a crappy gift to your niece), to sim cards to camel packs (a backpack for storing liquids with a tube to drink from). I wonder who their buyer is.

The cold reality is that the postal service is going to need a major service design overhaul. This could be as comprehensive as reviewing their software and systems all the way through to rethinking their property and locational strategy. We need to think about what our post offices are for and therefore what the best infrastructure (both hard and soft) is to support the main services they deliver.

That’s all folks, until next time.

4 Responses to “Designed to Fail: the Postal Service”
  1. Seb Chan says:

    Strangely enough Australia Post is the only postal service in the world that is growing and profitable. Largely due to their retail stores which also now, I discovered before I left Australia have extended hours in some cases.

    I always got around the parcel delivery nightmare by renting a PO Box near my office and getting my parcels in my lunch break. Not ideal but never a missed parcel.

    • michmouch14 says:

      It is indeed, and that is largely due to the fact that they also have payment and banking services. The US postal service has not been able to diversify its portfolio of services. But you’ve got to wonder whether being profitable at doing the things you weren’t originally designed to do is such a great achievement, and also, whether there is any job satisfaction in working in a service that is inefficient with its resources, especially human (I am thinking of the parcel delivery guy).

      Anyway, how is NYC working out for you?

  2. It’s my understanding that the parcel delivery is done by contractors. Not that that lets AusPost off the hook, of course….

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  1. […] all know, I was not inclined to appreciate their customer service after the parcel delivery fiasco I wrote about a couple of months ago but the recent debacle with them (which only concluded this morning) takes […]

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