USPS gets a grip on delivery problems

Every day the U.S. Postal Service entrusts millions of pounds of mail to

commercial airline carriers for transport around the world.

Sometimes, packages get left behind, other times mail bags are put on

the wrong flights. Making matters worse, USPS' paper-based system for reporting

those errors and detecting wider problems was usually weeks or even months

behind — when it was used at all.

But thanks to a new World Wide Web-based data management system developed

for USPS by Ciber Inc., current reports are available on a daily basis.

That enables postal officials to identify problems sooner and ask air carriers

to fix them more quickly.

With the new system, which went online last month, USPS employees use

special ruggedized Palm Inc. Palm III handheld computers to scan bar codes

on mailbags and to report the type of handling error using a simple drop-down

menu. That information is uploaded to a database via the Web each night,

a far cry from the old paper-based system.

"It used to take reports six months to be processed. Now, they are available

in a matter of hours," said Clayton Bonnell, manager of International Operations

and Support at USPS. "This system has put the data into the hands of those

who can make a difference."

Bonnell said productivity improvements should allow the system to pay

for itself within 12 months, although he declined to disclose the system's

cost.

Besides being faster, the Palm-based system solves accuracy problems

that plagued the paper system, Bonnell said. Fewer people now handle the

documents, and issues such as illegible handwriting and incomplete forms

go away.

"The device walks the ramp clerk through the process step by step,"

he said. "In the past, the system was so miserable no one wanted to use

it. The same problems were taking place every day because no one wanted

to report it."

At the end of the day, the handheld is placed into a cradle and the

data is transferred via the network to the agency's database in Washington,

D.C. The Palm IIIs have wireless capabilities, but because of restrictions

at airports on the use of electronic communications, USPS is not using the

technology at this time.

Information in the database is accessible to postal managers via a Web browser.

They can search for information such as the number of incidents reported

at a specific airport in a given time period.

"This is valuable information, especially at the national level, when

it comes to deciding what action to take with a carrier," Bonnell said.

"It has also made it easier to solve problems that may be taking place at

a certain location. There may be a problem with mail being transferred in

San Francisco, but only San Francisco may be aware of it because a report

was put into their file cabinet and not immediately sent to headquarters."

Not only is the new system easy to learn, but it can be updated with

little or no effort, said Kevin Norris, account manager for USPS at Ciber

Inc. Whenever the handhelds are placed in the cradles, the USPS database

automatically updates the software or system information.

"We could never afford to send out software updates on disks," Bonnell

said. "This way it is done every time the [device] is synced to the system."

When a new device is added to the system, a manager contacts Ciber via

its Web site and enters in information such as airport location and employee

identification numbers. The new handheld is then placed in the cradle, and

Ciber downloads the information via the Internet.

Because of the flexibility of the system, USPS is exploring other areas

in which to use the handhelds and Web-based management.

"It would be ideal in a warehouse, distribution center or anywhere you

use forms," Bonnell said. "This system would be ideal for any agency [that]

needs to use forms and have immediate access to data."

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