Standardization: By Whose Standards?

The President’s Commission on the U.S. Postal Service has received input from many quarters and held hearings around the country. One issue it seems to have locked onto is standardization.

The commission requested a study on standardization from consulting group Global Insight. A key finding of the report was that the potential benefits of investing in standardization initiatives at all stages of postal processing and delivery could be at least three times the savings presently sought by the postal service in its goal to reduce costs by $5 billion from 2002 to 2007.

Who could be against rational standardization? Well, many are, depending on how you define “rational.” What seems logical as today’s standard may become very restrictive as new techniques in direct mail marketing are developed. Hardly any mailing pieces were mailed in polywrap 20 years ago. Today, significant percentages arrive wrapped in poly. It’s conceivable that restrictive standards would have put dents in this marketing and delivery methodology.

For a historical perspective on standardization, let’s look at a prior USPS attempt at letter mail standardization.

In the late 1980s, letter mail automation was in its infancy. The postal service was just beginning to encourage mailer bar coding of First-Class letter mail. To help the automation process along, the USPS established the Automation & Bar Code Committee, which had about a dozen members split between the postal service and mailing industry. It was co-chaired by Peter Jacobson, then USPS vice president of engineering, and Jim Pehta, then a senior executive at List Processing Corp., a supplier of mailing software. I was named as an industry representative.

One challenge was to increase the amount of mailer-applied bar-coded mail. Back then, very little First-Class mail had a mailer-applied bar code, leaving the success of the letter mail automation program in doubt.

It was clear to the committee’s industry members that the reason for the almost nonexistent bar coding by mailers was the standards that the USPS was requiring. Back then, the only allowable location for printing bar codes was the lower right-hand corner of the envelope. The mailer could print the code on the outside of the envelope or on an insert, as long as the bar code showed through a glassine window, again, on the lower right-hand corner of the envelope.

The industry representatives on the committee were unanimous in telling the postal service that this location was a non-starter. Printing the bar code on the outside of the envelope would require the mailer to go through expensive double-pass processing steps. Similarly, printing a bar code on a strange location on an insert would require an expensive redesign of all First-Class mailing forms. It was clear to us that no one in the mailing industry was going to take either option.

Industry representatives were united in their position that mailers could and would print the bar code in the address block area. Modifications would need to be made to forms, but they were manageable. The USPS, therefore, needed to develop a technology that could find and read a bar code in the somewhat variably located address block area.

Jacobson and his staff went back to the technology gurus. The result was the development of a wide-area bar code reader. This reader was just what the letter mail automation program needed. Today, mailers of nearly any size and capability can print bar codes in their address block area. And, the letter mail automation program has been a huge success. But had the mailing industry been forced to accept the initial USPS bar code location standard (read: requirement), letter mail automation would be nowhere.

The mailing industry today faces similar standardization issues. They include addressing location requirements on Periodicals, size and shape restrictions on flats, polywrap seam locations on flats and 2-D bar codes for letter mail replacing existing postnet bar codes.

Standards are fine, but USPS engineers alone cannot set standards. Current and future technological capabilities must be considered. But also important are industry costs and capabilities. The mailing community must be at least an equal partner in setting standards.

The experience and success with letter mail bar coding is worth remembering.

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