A Special Report from the Office of MIT President Charles M. Vest • June 1998

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Retooling the campus mail system

The MIT mail system: from trade-off to payoff

One of the most visible of the recent changes in MIT operations has been a major restructuring of the Institute's mail distribution system. The new system illustrates the fact that even a pragmatic and cost-effective innovation can initially prove disruptive and unpopular.

The story of the new mail system also demonstrates that the payoff can be worth the hassles. In this case, that payoff is already approximately $800,000 in savings -- with more to come.

In 1994, MIT handling costs for incoming, outgoing and interdepartmental mail were in excess of 25 cents per piece -- before postage. Under the new system, the cost per piece has been cut nearly in half, to 12.8 cents.

Although many other public and private enterprises had long since achieved bulk discounts by working with the US Postal Service (USPS) and express mail companies to streamline and consolidate operations, MIT had allowed its mail system to remain diffuse and uncoordinated. There were wide variations in the quality of mail service, with considerably less than half the campus receiving daily "desktop" deliveries of sorted mail. Building Services was responsible for mail pickup and delivery; most, but not all, bulk mailings were handled by Graphic Arts; and -- at a time when postal regulations and procedures were changing rapidly -- there was no central contact point between the USPS and the MIT community. Departments, labs and centers made their own arrangements for outgoing mail: some estimated the cost of postage and used stamps; some used meters (there were over 140 on campus); and most had their own contracts with express and international mail services (each paid for separately).

In September of 1994, Senior Vice President William R. Dickson convened a Mail Services Redesign Team to study ways to improve the system while reducing its cost. "This was one of the most obvious areas to make changes," Dickson notes. "We had already had a committee issuing its report as we embarked on reengineering. So we decided that we would put the mail component into the reengineering agenda." As a first step toward improving the system, MIT created the position of Manager of Mail Services. The position was filled by year's end, when MIT persuaded Penny Guyer -- for seven years, the head of mail services at Minnesota's University of St. Thomas -- to undertake a major upgrade of the Institute's mail operation.

"I'll never forget the first day I walked into the old Mail Room in Building 24," recalls Guyer. "It was dark, cold and shabby. Just about everything was still being done by hand -- and there was mail at the bottom of some piles that was several months old. Before I got here, I figured that, at a place like MIT, they'd be beaming the mail around the campus. The reality was something very different." By July of 1995, Guyer had presided over the transfer of central mail operations to newly renovated facilities in WW15, and was ready to begin the implementation of 36 new Distributed Mail Centers (DMCs) throughout the campus.

The idea behind the DMCs was simple and powerful. "When people arrive for work, it's not a big deal for them to pick up their incoming mail," says Bill Dickson. "Then you can use the Physical Plant people who used to deliver mail to pick up outgoing mail instead, and get it to a central facility where it can be prepped to take advantage of discount postal rates."

But, while the idea may have been simple, implementation was a slow, and sometimes painful, process. The new DMCs were set up only as space was identified and made available, which took far longer than mail system planners had first estimated. Users objected to the layout and security of the new centers. They worried about the reliability of the accounting system for charging back postage costs. Users accustomed to office delivery complained that MIT was asking them to do extra work by picking up their own mail. They criticized the new central sorting operation for an inability to keep up with staffing and location changes throughout the Institute. Above all, they worried about giving up control of a critical function. "I think all academic institutions are accustomed to a high degree of decentralization," observes Guyer. "I think that, also, there was and is -- understandably -- a strong resistance to change of any kind, just on principle."

With the benefit of hindsight, Guyer now sees two underlying problems as the basis for much of the opposition. "Certainly it is true that a lot of the human touch was lost. Instead of chatting with that nice custodian who used to come by with the mail, people lost touch with Mail Services, which did its work at night and invisibly," says Guyer. "As for misdelivered mail, it's always been a problem and will continue to be a problem as long as people don't standardize their mailing addresses, and as long as the Institute doesn't have centralized updating of mailing lists. We're working on those issues, but I think misdelivered mail is more obvious in today's system, simply because it has to be taken back to the DMCs for pickup."

The controversy over mail reached its peak in late 1995. In October, Professor James L. Kirtley, Jr. published a Faculty Newsletter article which attacked MIT's Reengineering program in general and the mail system in particular. "Reengineering is not working well," wrote Kirtley. "It has spent several millions of dollars and produced a dysfunctional mail system and a bunch of promises."

Fortunately for both the Mail Services staff and for the Institute as a whole, what Kirtley saw as permanent problems turned out to be transitional stumbles which have been corrected over time. Early in 1996, Mail Services embarked on an intensive and continuing communications campaign designed to identify and remedy user dissatisfaction, but also to remind the MIT community of the critical resource management issues which made a new mail system so important.

Today, the new system is no longer so new. Users are more familiar with it, and some have even grown to appreciate it. Best of all, the numbers are in, and the savings and performance appear to justify the effort. (See table headlined "Mail Services Savings.") MIT President Charles M. Vest argues that "The new mail system has been through some rocky times, but it has ended up as a major asset in our effort to manage our resources more effectively. Our analysis of both operational and fiscal performance suggests that, whatever problems we had to address in implementation, this was the right change at the right time."

"Now that we've got the basic system up and in place," says Guyer, "I would like to move on to some additional innovations. First -- staffing permitting -- I'd like to extend Mail Services to cover Cambridge Center, 238 Main St. and other areas which are now considered off-campus but which house more and more MIT offices. Second, with the coming demolition of the older facilities in Building 20, I'd like to consider a major revamping of the Shipping and Receiving operation -- perhaps even offering packaging and personal shipping options. Finally, I'd like to upgrade our on-campus bulk mail services, while helping off-campus bulk mailers to clean and cut down their catalogue and other mass mailing lists for MIT. It would save them a lot of money, and would cut down on unwanted on-campus mail. Of course, it would also cut down on Mail Services revenues, but I'm pushing for it because I think it's good for the Institute as a whole."

Mail Services Savings

Lower personnel costs, 1994&endash;1997


Use of outside mail consolidator, FY 97


Central handling of international mail, FY 97


Renegotiation of overnight carrier contracts, FY 97


Partial consolidation of postage meters, FY 97


Barcoding/sorting for Tech Talk mailings, FY 97


Total Documented Savings, FY 94&endash;97


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