Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Lack of vision at top betrays those at bottom

Reading about the Postal Service’s failed forays into the modern digital world reminded me of something I had seen on TV, and the limitations of management without a vision of the future.

In the very first episode of “The Sopranos,” the protagonist, Tony Soprano, is facing a crisis in one of the businesses his “family” is involved in.

He had told his psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi, that he was a “waste management consultant”: “solid and non-putresceable waste. You know, the environment.”

In fact, he was a major but nearly always absent influence in Barone Sanitation, and the company was facing competition from a newcomer, Czech immigrants who were trying for Barone’s garbage routes. “They figure if they could tell the Communist bosses to go f— themselves, they can tell us,” says Tony’s friend and fellow mobster, Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero.

Tony has had health issues, and got an MRI. He comes out with a new view of the way things could be, but his nephew, “Christopher,” cannot see the big picture.

“Trash,” Christopher says. “That’s our bread and butter.”

“Was our bread and butter,” Tony says, and then launches into an explanation of how they can make money in the medical scanning business.

I was thinking of this after reading an article about a guy who claimed that he invented email in the early 1980s, even though messaging over computers had been around since the beginning of the ARPANET.

The Postal Service had hired him as a consultant, though he seemed to have nearly nothing to contribute except criticism. One thing that was interesting was that he asked what postal management was doing while the Internet was becoming a big deal.

Most postal brass will talk in circles, but the truth of the matter is that entering postal management in the early 1980s to early 1990s may have been a social and economic advancement, but it was not an intellectual advancement for people. In fact, there was a semi-open policy that certain groups were to be excluded from postal management, including people who showed a marked interest in technology and anyone with a college degree.

Secretly, people who wanted to be managers were evaluated on another criterion: religious belief. Any religion was OK, so long as it was Christian. Non-Christians were not wanted in a system that valued obedience and submission.

Maintaining the status quo was the key to being a success in postal management. Talking about email was a good way to get yourself labeled a kook. Paper mail was the Postal Service’s bread and butter. Email was the enemy.

The biggest thing most promotion boards wanted to know was if you knew how to write people up for disciplinary action and handle grievances, not if you knew how the system worked. Being mentally deficient was an advantage in such systems, and I had a feeling that lots of postal managers knew that they were lost in a world outside the postal system. Very few had any computer knowledge or curiosity about what was going on outside the system.

Meanwhile, email was becoming a very big deal. Electronic payments were becoming a very big deal. And when the mail volume fell and the money stopped flowing in – and the U.S. Congress made the Postal Service pre-fund its obligations for retirement and health care for workers who haven’t even been born yet – the crunch became a crisis.

The sad reality is that the electronic mail system is the wave of the future, and the Postal Service is becoming the wave of the past. The slow but sure demise of paper mail is a disruptive event that even the most forward-looking vision can’t stop.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps the best option for the Postal Service is not to try to survive in the new digital age, but figure out how to wind itself down without causing too much disruption to its workers and managers. After all, other services once thought essential have gone away, and life has gone on.

The reality is that the Postal Service didn’t miss the boat. It was at the dock and watched and waved goodbye as the boat set sail. The price is heavy, but that’s what happens when managers are picked based on criteria that aren’t relevant to their jobs.

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June 12, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , ,

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