Devising a Corporate Flats Strategy

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For the past few years, senior postal officials have said that one of their key operational challenges is to improve the processing of flats. Flats, as distinguished from letters, fall into this size category: 6 1/8 to 12 inches in height, 11 1/2 to 15 inches in length and 1/4 to 3/4 inches in thickness.


If an item exceeds any dimension minimum it is classified as a flat. Though most flats are catalog or magazine shaped, enveloped pieces exceeding the minimum are considered flats. Thirty percent of U.S. Postal Service volume consists of flats.


Flats are more expensive to process for various reasons in addition to their physical dimensions. Magazines and catalogs are typically unsealed, often causing covers to tear on sorting equipment. Address locations are much more variable than on letters. And the covers of magazines and catalogs usually consist of high-gloss stock, making them tougher to feed on sorting equipment.


When flats reach the letter carrier, he has the task of manually sorting them into walk sequence so they can be delivered along with letter mail.


The postal service is undertaking two major research and development efforts to process and deliver flats. They are:


o Flats sequencing sortation, a system for sorting flats in delivery walk sequence.


o Delivery point packaging, a system to sort letters and flats together in delivery walk sequence.


Both efforts aim to reduce letter carrier time in the office and on the delivery route.


A little history might be valuable here. Some years ago the postal service studied how letter carriers spent their work time. The study concluded that carriers spent only half their time actually carrying and delivering letters. The other half was spent in their office sorting mail.


Therefore, the USPS developed a plan to bar code letter mail, sequence it on a bar code sorter and give it to the carrier in delivery sequence. The objective was to cut in-office time in half and use those extra hours to increase the number of deliveries that a carrier makes.


Presumably this program has had success since the average carrier now delivers to more delivery points. However, we haven't seen any specific numbers relating to in-office time. Now the service plans to address the same carrier in-office time issue by focusing on flat mail.


Clearly, the customer will be key to the success of the flats automation program, just as the customer was key to the success of letter-mail automation.


In the USPS Corporate Flats Strategy booklet dated May 2003, this statement is made: "The Postal Service has decided that it will not spray POSTNET barcodes directly on flats and will instead rely exclusively on the mailers to provide barcoded flats."


Indeed, that same flats strategy booklet stated: "Customer involvement is an integral part of the Flats Strategy, and we look forward to working with the mailing industry on this most important endeavor." It's interesting to note that the identical statement was made in an earlier version of the Corporate Flats Strategy issued in July 2001.


But in the two years since that statement was first made, mailing industry involvement in the postal service's flats strategy has been modest at best. As a result, Postcom (Association for Postal Commerce) along with other trade associations is sponsoring a "Flats Summit" in Washington on July 16.


At the summit, the mailing industry will raise a host of questions concerning flats strategy. Most will fall into two general categories:


o Is the strategy likely to work?


o How will it affect mailers' flats mailing programs and formats?


These two seemingly different questions really intersect. If the postal service's strategy would require the mailing industry to make dramatic changes to its mailing plans, especially mailing formats, the industry may be unwilling to sign on. This would doom the flats automation program. The USPS needs to provide much more than lip service to mailers' concerns. The service must be ready to make meaningful changes.


Let's not forget that there is another important guest at the party, the National Association of Letter Carriers. Recall that the letter-mail program got off to a slow start because of disagreements and a lack of consultation with the letter carriers union. As far as I can determine, the flats strategy booklet does not mention the NALC or letter carrier involvement. Let's trust that, once burned, the postal service has or will involve the affected employees in the planning process.


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