Mail Preparation Total Quality Management: A candid conversation with John Wargo, U.S. Postal Service vice president, Service & Market Development, regarding the postal service’s premier mail quality program – Interview
Richard W. Pavely
About 3.5 trillion letters ago, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) embarked on the longest and most successful automation program in American business history, the Automation Plan for Business Mailers. That program, also known as Work Sharing, elevated the process by which the postal service sorted and distributed mail throughout the postal system by introducing POSTNET bar coding and other automation technology. Without it, it’s estimated that a 1-ounce First Class letter would now require well over $2, in postage. Key to the success of that Herculean effort was the enlistment of the cooperation and support of the business mailers by offering deep discounts on postage for preparing and submitting automation-compatible mail.
Now, nearly two decades later, the postal service is again embarking on another arduous journey into deeper reaches of improved customer service by incorporating the best and the brightest features of three internationally recognized quality methodologies: the ISO 9000, the Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence criteria, and Total Quality Management.
The Mail Preparation Total Quality Management (MPTQM) program is designed to help businesses prepare letter mailings that meet or exceed postal service processing quality standards. Designed by industry mailers, it’s a complete system of realistic quality control measures and standardized assessment procedures. It applies to all aspects of the mail preparation process, from the generation and bar coding of a letter to the final sorting and containerizing that takes place just prior to presenting the mailing to the postal service.
To assess the progress of the program and gain a better understanding of the benefits and requirements for participating, this author traveled to USPS Marketing Headquarters in Alexandria, Va. to interview John Wargo, vice president, SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT DEVELOPMENT. Here are the highlights of that interview, followed by an assessment of the business consequences for participating in the MPTQM program.
OS: Why did the postal service choose to develop the MPTQM program to assure a quality process when other quality programs, such as the Malcolm Baldrige and ISO 9000 programs, already existed?
Wargo: Our initial action was to form an advisory group of postal service customers to help us define the quality program. We began by reviewing the specifications we require for mail and studying the processes the mailers use to produce it. This naturally drove us to a standards- and process management-based approach to quality. We then reviewed the other international methodologies, such as ISO, and decided our approach was more in depth and focused. We borrowed many ideas from those methodologies to strengthen MPTQM, however.
OS: What does the postal service hope to gain from the MPTQM program?
Wargo: Our goal is customer satisfaction. MPTQM will help ease the entry of business mail into our processing and distribution streams…Error free mail will sail through the mail acceptance process. High-quality mail also ensures timely delivery. The resulting customer satisfaction will drive increased use of the mail.
OS: Does the MPTQM program only apply to presort service bureaus and super high-volume mailers?
Wargo: We began MPTQM with presort service bureaus because of the complexity of their mailings. Many other large-volume mailers also have complicated mailings, and some of those mailers are now in the program. Improving quality first with these mailers is in line with our goals. All business mailers are welcome to participate.
OS: Who are list mailers?
Wargo: This is a term we use in the program for all but presort service bureaus. Most, but not all, of these mailers perform mail sortation from a computerized list versus an automated letter sorter or MLOCR (multi-line optical character reader). That’s the origin of the term.
OS: Why would a list mailer benefit from becoming certified under the MPTQM program?
Wargo: Program materials, including a training video and work aids, are free. Audits are free. Mail verifications are to be reduced, and fewer postage adjustments will be applied. There are a number of internal benefits mailers are seeing. Some are less down time on machines, fewer rejections of mail, fewer postage adjustments for poor quality, more employee pride in the company, an improved employee retention rate, reduced training costs.
OS: How long does it normally take to become certified in the program?
Wargo: About 12, months from the point of dedicated implementation.
OS: If a firm already has an existing quality program in place, can all or part of that program be incorporated into the MPTQM process? Or would they have to start from scratch with the MPTQM program?
Wargo: Mailers in this situation should contact Scott Hamel for guidance. He can be reached at 703/292-3824 or via the Internet at email@example.com. Following a telephone discussion and mailer registration, he will provide [them with] an MPTQM guidebook, which gives instructions on getting started and includes a “Gap Analysis” for mailers with existing quality programs to use.
OS: Would MPTQM certification be a useful procurement criterion for those firms who purchase production mail products and services from presort service bureaus or list mailers?
Wargo: Definitely. Our plans, in fact, are to move in that direction.
OS: How is the postal service organized to support the program? Are you using field personnel or contractors to conduct the audits?
Wargo: Scott Hamel, who works in the technical side of our headquarters marketing organization, is the program manager. He has a staff of 30 analysts who conduct mailer audits with the support of our district business mail entry offices. Most of his analysts now are Certified Quality Auditors through the American Society for Quality (ASQ). They lead the audits. A contractor was used to help establish this part of the program.
OS: How successful is the program?
Wargo: We are very excited with the results to date. The involved mailers continue to praise the value the process adds to their companies. Our relationships with these customers have improved. In terms of MPTQM’s impact on mail quality, we will be building a performance measurement process this spring.
OS: How many service bureaus are certified?
Wargo: Twenty-eight service bureaus are certified.
OS: How many list mailers are certified?
Wargo: Five list mailers are certified.
OS: Do you have some advice for those who are considering investing in the rigors of certification?
Wargo: Interested mailers should contact Scott Hamel who can answer [their] questions and put them in touch with a few certified mailers who have processes most like theirs. Involved mailers have expressed great willingness to share their experiences with others. They recognize that the more MPTQM players we have, the healthier the entire mailing industry will be.
OS: What are your predictions for the MPTQM program?
Wargo: Within three years, all major-volume, and some lesser-volume, mailers will be installing the program. Large-volume postal customers will require their vendors, particularly lettershops and presort service bureaus, to be MPTQM certified.
OS Summary: From a business standpoint, the MPTQM program makes incredibly good sense. The cost to implement it is easy to justify. For starters, anytime you take an excellent program like Malcolm Baldrige and customize it to your unique situation, you raise the likelihood that the end result will be significantly improved. In addition to protecting the discounts that a mailer already enjoys, which can be measured in millions of dollars per year for a production mailer, certification under this program will result in less frequent verifications on the receiving dock, faster insertion into the system, and fewer of the new and nasty postage adjustments.
Furthermore, the routine application of quality standards within a production process will shorten the time for instituting corrective actions and reduce the cost of imbedded systemic problems, which would otherwise remain hidden in the turmoil of production activity.
Obviously, the postal service can’t check everything it receives. By qualifying for MPTQM, the mailer positions his or her firm’s mail as highly reliable and, therefore, not requiring further attention. That way, the postal service can concentrate its inspection efforts where serious problems are more likely to exist.
Richard W. Povely, MSE, is president of Corporate Management & Marketing Consultants Inc. of Randolph, N.J. He’s an active member of ASO, AQP, MSMA, and several Postal Customer Councils. He can be reached at 973/989-0229 or via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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