For USPS' Full Service program, the payoff is in the mail
Tracking mail from origin to destination offers valuable data for planning, savings and efficiency
- By Edmund X. DeJesus
- Oct 15, 2010
Snow, rain or gloom of night doesn’t influence the U.S. Postal Service much, but the economic climate certainly does.
The economic slowdown has been affecting mailers, who deal with rising costs by mailing fewer items. And a lot of personal mail went electronic a long time ago. The resulting reduction in mail revenue is coupled with increasing expenses. For example, USPS, which still handles about 170 billion pieces of mail going to more than 140 million destinations per year, spends about $2 billion annually to handle undeliverable mail.
The mail delivery business is changing in other ways. Advertising has become the largest mail segment, and many clients have specific demands about the timing of delivery of advertisements to potential buyers. Meanwhile, USPS faces direct competition from many well-known commercial delivery services. Increasingly, information about the mail is worth almost as much as the mail itself.
USPS began the Intelligent Mail program in 2005 to place bar codes on mail and install bar code scanners throughout mail facilities to capture and store information. Bar codes can define special routing through the system or indicate special services to perform.
The Full Service program builds on the Intelligent Mail foundation to create the infrastructure and processes necessary to gather scanner data, combine it with data from mailers, and produce actionable information for customers and USPS. “Full Service is the largest information technology implementation ever attempted by the USPS,” said Brody Buhler, solution architect for the Full Service program at Accenture.
“We designed the system to accommodate Year 4 volume from the beginning, just in case,” said John Edgar, U.S. Postal Service. USPS’ Full Service team.
Pushing the Envelope
The Full Service program began in 2008 with a goal to gather quality information about the mail and provide metrics to customers and USPS. The program employed the services of about 400 people across seven locations and included more than 10,000 individual requirements. Some of those requirements led to changes in 11 existing systems, such as PostalOne, a Web-based mailing management system created in 2001. In addition, Full Service developed six entirely new systems.
Systems planning and requirements writing began in July 2008. Changes to the existing systems required working with mailing industry groups, such as the Mailers' Technical Advisory Committee, to revise the content and structure of the electronic manifests. That information included useful suggestions and helped USPS address particular concerns of large mailers.
“We have an ongoing relationship with customers that is indispensable for the success of initiatives like Full Service,” said John Edgar, vice president of USPS' Information Technology Solutions division.
USPS captures time, location and other transactional data each time a mail bar code is scanned. Those bar code transactions are stored, creating a vast quantity of data that moves very fast: Each USPS processing machine handles 17 pieces of mail per second.
The component that handles this data, Seamless Acceptance and Service Performance (SASP), runs on an open-source operating system, SUSE Linux, on IBM zlO mainframes. Those robust, resilient, secure and flexible platforms have a small physical footprint and lower operating system and software licensing costs, Edgar said. “This was the best architecture for our demanding performance requirements,” he said.
SASP uses a clustered Oracle Real Application Clusters database. It employs Oracle PL/SQL to execute business logic, industry-standard Informatica tools to perform extract-transform-load operations, and IBM WebSphere MQ for integration, with a Java execution control architecture.
Accenture, Avaya, Northrup Grumman IT, General Dynamics and Johnston McLamb were USPS' IT partners for the program. To simulate production-level speeds and volumes of input data, the program created the Operational Readiness Test, which is a data-driven, compliance-focused test and evaluation of the Full Service program.
“Some mailers participated in our tests, changing their systems in order to provide us with suitable test files,” Edgar said.
In addition to USPS’ work, mailers also had to make modifications. They needed to implement changes to their mail manifests that would mesh with changes to the existing USPS systems. Mailers had a ramp-up period with mutually agreeable deadlines for completing their work.
Development of the Full Service program began in October 2008. The first version of Full Service was released a mere seven months later, in May 2009.
“Adoption of Full Service was aggressive,” initially handling hundreds of millions of pieces of mail per week, Buhler said. It marked the first time that data capture was available for every mail piece. Financial incentives, in the form of postage savings for conversion to Intelligent Mail bar codes, went into effect in November 2009, which increased the rate of adoption by mailers.
Mailers now provide electronic documentation in structured manifests that include details about their mail pieces, using the Mail.dat client application. They also apply the all-important unique Intelligent Mail bar codes to their mail pieces. The information combines with the captured bar code scan transactions to provide a complete picture of the processing of each piece of mail, from the piece’s location in a particular tray, pallet and truck to its acceptance by USPS. The bar code facilitates tracking mail through processing, transport to other facilities and ultimately delivery to a recipient. And it can carry information about any special handling or services along the way.
Upon acceptance of a piece of mail, USPS validates the information against the provided manifest, using the Full Service Intelligent Mail Device. USPS also provides free Address Correction Service information to the mailer service or customer. Customers can obtain information from a Web portal or an Extensible Markup Language-formatted data stream. If customers use services to create mailings, they can tell if those services are delivering the mail to USPS on time and whether the addresses are correct.
“Customers receive better service,” Edgar said. For example, advertisers can be sure that their messages will reach potential buyers before special sales. “This is also valuable for planning,” he added. For instance, stores can plan their merchandise needs and staffing requirements based on the delivery of their advertising.
USPS also obtains information about its operations, which can help identify bottlenecks and locations that might have a surplus of workers or resources.
Adoption has been enthusiastic. “In the first three to four months, we processed a billion pieces with Full Service,” Edgar said. So far, Full Service has processed more than 30 billion pieces, a number that is growing by about half a billion per week.
“We designed the system to accommodate Year 4 volume from the beginning, just in case,” Edgar said. The current volume levels are well within the projections for Year 2 volume. The system has the capacity to store detailed, transaction-level data for 45 days.
USPS is receiving the metrics required to reduce the $2 billion wasted annually on undeliverable mail, and it's getting more accurate reporting of $45 billion in annual revenue from more than 50,000 mailers. As of March, Full Service revenues had increased to $200 million per week. Total postage through the re-engineered PostalOne electronic postage system brings more than $290 million in weekly revenue from more than 1.1 billion pieces.
Full Service is also transforming USPS’ relationship with its largest mailers. They can track their mail to better manage suppliers, coordinate messages to customers and adjust staff requirements. USPS also can offer new products, such as bar code-dependent services. Mailers can redirect their pieces, request tracking data or request the destruction of undelivered mail — and there are many more possibilities to come.
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