Sorry I Can’t Help You, Mr. Customer – It’s Against the Rules!


It's sort of cliche' to complain about long lines at the U.S. Post Office , along with generally surly or disinterested employees.

My buddy John sent me an email about a recent experience where the postal employee WANTED to help, but was strangely concerned about what the boss might think. Location withheld to protect the helpful and the customer focused.

The email from my friend:

So there we were at the ______ Post Office yesterday. I needed to send a package by registered mail, which requires special tape to seal the box and stamps to show that there has been no tampering. I didn't know any of this and had closed the box with regular package tape, which can't be used.

Anyway, the guy at the desk was very helpful and pleasant (unusual for that place), but he kept looking over his shoulder as he removed my tape, redid the box with his special tape, changed out the label, etc etc.

Midway through he says “Sorry, my boss doesn't let us help customers like this. If he walks in I'll have to stop helping you and will only be able to give you general instructions. Just go along with it and we'll see what we can do. He then keeps looking over his shoulder and eventually goes into a monologue on how he used to be allowed to help customers but now there are too many rules and restrictions. Classic, eh?”

Unlike other countries where the Post Office is using Lean, like  Canada or  Japan, there;s no evidence that the USPS is trying to adopt Lean practices. That's good.

I'd hate to think the post office worker was being hampered by an overzealous approach to “standardized work.”

More likely, the post office worker is being hampered by traditional management where leaders try to control what people do and they're held to unreasonable metrics or metrics that just focus on productivity, such as the number of customers served per hour. The guy who was trying to help John was focused on customer satisfaction, but something in the culture and the management style was putting him at risk for getting in trouble for trying to be helpful.

The worker was more customer focused than management.

If a post office were using Lean principles, I'd hope that “standardized work” wouldn't be overly restrictive. A Lean setting should first focus on customer needs. Metrics would be balanced around quality (including customer satisfaction) AND cost (including productivity).

I'd like to think a Lean post office manager would see an employee helping a customer and they might jump in to help. Or at least that worker could signal that they were falling behind and could use help (if the line behind John were growing). Photo below is NOT from John's post office visit. :-)

3293143720 a17a09eec3 Sorry I Cant Help You, Mr. Customer   Its Against the Rules! lean

Toyota assembly lines have an “andon cord” that workers can pull and they immediately get help from a supervisor. The post office could use that concept, as could hospitals, where workers who have fallen behind or who see a quality problem are often left to flounder on their own, without support.

What are your reactions to what John wrote or on my thoughts?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • Kevin, thanks for sharing your blog post. I hope everyone checks it out.

      For the sake of discussion here, the post office (and the world) would be a better place if everyone followed your company’s policy, where employees ask:

      Is it right for the customer?
      Is it right for the airline?
      Is it ethical?
      Is it in line with the airline’s core values?
      Am I willing to be held personally accountable for the decision?

      And this is different than the movie “Office Space” where “is it GOOD for the company” was the only rule on that huge office banner.

  1. The pull chain sounds like a great idea for the post office. A lot of time when I am there for something complicated and they need management assistance it takes 10 minutes to go FIND the manager.

  2. Mark,
    I’m speculating but this could have been driven due to liability concerns and/or security concerns, not a lack of interest in customer satisfaction by management. Re-packaging an already packaged box could inadvertently damage the contents or, more likely, affect the integrity of the box, leading to potential damage of the contents in transit. Hence why I say liability.
    However, I’m leaning more toward security as the cause. In light of the UPS incident with the bombs inside toner cartridges, and the other recent incidents like the exploding package sent to Janet Napolitano, my guess is that Homeland Security has tightened up the “rules and restrictions” or at least given direction to all agencies of the federal gov’t to better enforce existing regulations.
    Again, just speculation.

    • JM – that’s good speculation. If it is indeed a security issue, then management has failed in training their employees. Good training, including the Training Within Industry (TWI) method, includes understanding WHY things shouldn’t be done.

      Traditional top-down leadership: Don’t help customers repackage or tape boxes — because I saw say and I’m the boss!

      Lean leadership: Explains WHY and helps employee understand and inte

  3. I really like the andon concept.

    Too often satisfaction is let slip because it’s simply impossible to be “productive” and “helpful” as defined by some management practices.

    If management or supervisors were more hands-on when needed it would not only increase the customer’s satisfaction, it would also increase productivity as the task would be completed more quickly.

    Great read. Thank you.

  4. In a recent visit to the Post Office, there was a lengthy line, and only one person working. She was helping someone, and was taking a long time to do so. The next person in line asked “Is anybody else working?” The worker said, “That’s a good question.” She did go back and ask for help, and the line started moving again, but there was certainly no signal that she could use to let people know she needed help.

  5. This isn’t rocket science and the Post Office’s role is pretty straight forward. There are always several people on duty “behind the wall”, including those on break, supervisors, clerks, etc., who can all be cross-trained to handle simple request when queues form. I think a simple rule of thumb should be that whenever the line has 3 people waiting, that the clerk(s) on duty push a button requesting additional staffing help.

  6. Great discussion! May I throw in here the old mentality that the jobs need to be “protected” by coming up with “rules”? I still remember many years ago when, working for a Tier 1 supplier and visiting one of our customers’ plants, one of the production associates was literally reading a newspaper while some of his coworkers were trying hard to keep the pace. I asked someone what was going on and the answer came very “convincing”: “That is a “Union” job and they have “rules”…” I have seen that too many times and it is still a reality out there, probably not as wide spread as 10-20 years ago.

    Are these “rules” one of the causes of what happened in the automotive industry in the last few years? I personally think that it has a lot to do with it. However, I do believe that we are in process of changing that mentality so we can move more towards a true teamwork, Toyota model. If you had the chance to visit their plants you will agree with me; that is indeed a model, not only in Japan but also here, in NA, in Toyota’s plants. They play by other “rules”, helping each other and eventually their customer. That is part of their “job description”.

    I am not familiar with USPS. However, I suspect that, if this is a general trend, things will change rather sooner than later. One way of changing is “forced” by seeing customers migrating towards other suppliers of the same service – e.g. maybe FedEx, UPS -. That is the NA automotive type of change, forced by companies coming strongly from elsewhere with different “rules” that changed completely the way the game was played.

    The other option is learning from others – i.e. the same automotive industry – and understanding that the whole world is moving; being the major player today with very little competition might not be the case in the future. After all, not more than a few decades ago the NA car manufacturers were by far the “owners” of the market, not only in Canada and USA but also worldwide. That is gone today…

    Now, having this flagged by Mark’s article I will follow with interest the USPS’s journey. Maybe one of USPS’s executives will read this blog and do what they need to do…

    • Thanks for adding your thoughts. The USPS indeed has competition, but they are, I presume, protected from going out of business by the US government. This probably pours fire retardant all over what would otherwise be a “burning platform” for change?

  7. I see Mark; then it is the quickest way to disaster… They will be “protected” from competition for a while… Indeed, the USA government can do that. However, one of Peter Senge’s systems archetypes is called “Shifting the Burden”. I cite from his book: “Description: A short-term “solution” is used to correct a problem, with seemingly positive immediate results. As this correction is used more and more, more fundamental long-term corrective measures are used less and less. Over time, the capabilities for the fundamental solution may atrophy or become disabled, leading to even greater reliance on the symptomatic solution.”

    That was copied from his book “The Fifth Discipline” page 381. I am Canadian but I know one thing: the USA government is not short-sighted overall… They will probably keep it alive for a while hoping for a “volunteer” change. After that, it will let it go. I go back to the automotive industry by making the parallel: at one point in time, in spite of directly impacting hundreds of thousands of people, they let the “Big Three” collapse. That was extremely painful for, again, hundreds of thousands of people – if not millions considering the chain reaction that was generated -. However, that was the right thing to do; not too many governments elsewhere would have had that power and stand against a short-term “solution”.

    I trust things will fall into place eventually. I just hope that more and more industries will learn from each other as, why reinvent the wheel?

  8. The United States Postal Service (USPS) is a government organization, but they’ve had a mandate for a while that they need to be self-funding. This has been very difficult for them as they face competition from private companies and as people simply use their services less. They’ve cut 100,000 jobs over the past 3 years according to one of these 2 articles:

    It sounds pretty likely that they’re going to cut Saturday service soon. They’re trying to figure out how to eliminate their deficit without raising first class mail rates too much.

    The tough part of their competition is that the competition gets to cherry-pick the profitable areas such as package delivery. However, the USPS is required to deliver first class and bulk rate mail. I know that UPS and FedEx do not allow you to send a letter across the country for 44 cents.

    • USPS is a weird situation where they aren’t truly a private company and they aren’t the government exactly. More like a private company that operates under a lot of regulation (like being forced to deliver anywhere, six days a week for 44 cents).

      Healthcare has some similar dynamics of heavy regulation and cherry picking. Regular hospitals, required by law to take all comers in the emergency department, have to compete against speciality hospitals where surgeons can cherry pick really profitable cases away from hospitals. Some states have laws that address this disparity, I think. Seems like a rough parallel to USPS and FedEx.

      And I’m not suggesting the solution is hospitals NOT treating emergency patients. Probably need to address the cherry picking issue somehow.

      Sorry to hi-jack my own thread. Thanks for the reminder of those dynamics, Kevin.

  9. As the guy who experienced this particular story firsthand, it’s been fun to see such interest in USPS and consider the points everyone has made.

    The Postal Service is taking steps to reduce costs and improve service, but the government seems to be slow in addressing a core issue: the cost of daily delivery for paper mail far exceeds the value to the recipient. The handling, the transportation, the distribution to the home or business is all great, but most of us would agree that it’s overprocessing in most cases. At my house we check our mail 2-3 times a week and send 90% of it straight to the recycle bin. Meanwhile, the catalog and credit card companies continue to buy postage that creates the illusion of value.

    Even these companies are moving to other channels so the Postal Service will continue to feel the pain of high fixed costs if they don’t make structural changes. As far as I’m concerned, they can drop another day of delivery each week! That will raise the “cost per piece” but total cost of service will go down and maybe they can become solvent.

  10. I am a recently former employee, and I left due to the “new” practices. I was a carrier that loved talking to customers and kept a clean quick route. Unfortunatly the POst Office is all about numbers now. You are very right the management does not care about customer service. It is stated in meetings and so on, that they want the numbers to be where they need to be customers will have to deal with it. For a company that needs customers to regain faith it sure is going about it the wrong way. Meeting with carriers to pitch package sales to customers on the routes while the POst Office refuses to look at customers as anything more than a number.

    I understand loss in money but they care more about bonuses than customer service. I promise that if a supervisor tells you they will handle it, it is normally their fault and they do not care in the slightest. The only way to get things to change is to e-mail the customer service and complain about feelign like a number and giving your business to UPS or FedEx because at least management will let the employees take care of the customer there.

  11. From today’s WSJ:

    Postal Service Eyes Closing Thousands of Post Offices

    “Beginning in March, the agency will start the process of closing as many as 2,000 post offices, on top of the 491 it said it would close starting at the end of last year. In addition, it is reviewing another 16,000-half of the nation’s existing post offices-that are operating at a deficit, and lobbying Congress to allow it to change the law so it can close the most unprofitable among them. The law currently allows the postal service to close post offices only for maintenance problems, lease expirations or other reasons that don’t include profitability.”

  12. I found the article interesting with some good color and reader comments. It seems the Postal Service has found a way to save money by diverting resources to more profitable parts of the business, but they’re having trouble because politicians and others want to avoid the consequences to small towns.

    As an aspiring Lean Society, are we better off if everyone chips in and pays more for postage to provide service to remote areas, or should we find other solutions? I know my answer, but not everyone agrees…


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