Direct Mail News & Resources

The Challenges of Informed Visibility

Leo Raymond, Mailers Hub

Informed Visibility has been “coming soon” for months – it was among the features talked-up by the PMG in her opening day speech at the National Postal Forum – but is it really ready for use by mailers and mail owners?  The Postal Service’s answer to that question may differ from how an industry user would answer, and therein lies the challenging gap between plan and reality.

To understand from where IV derives requires a brief recap.  For several years, while it’s been pushing the mailing community to use intelligent mail barcodes, the Postal Service has concurrently been beefing up its scanning equipment and data systems to capture and process all the information gathered from mail scans and mailer documentation.  As those capabilities and the use of IMBs increased, the USPS conceived and developed both internal and customer-facing applications built on the data that those systems provide, including Informed Delivery, Surface Visibility, and Informed Visibility.

Surface Visibility, one of the first, is a management tool that enables monitoring of mail movement literally from the point of entry to the mailbox, along the way identifying where mail is moving smoothly and where it isn’t, and helping managers unblock “pinch points” and other errors in mail flow that could adversely impact service performance.  With the underlying data systems in place, making relevant subsets of the internally-visible data available externally to mail owners and mail presenters seemed relatively straightforward – hence SV’s customer-facing sibling, Informed Visibility.

As conceived, IV will offer a near-real-time consolidated view of mail movement.  When fully implemented, it will provide data to mailers and mail owners when and as they want it, making tracking of mailings (and their components) convenient, and from a single source.  In turn, this will allow mail users to more effectively plan and manage mail campaigns, thus increasing the value of the mail.

Obviously, the concept of what the all the hardware and software could do is one thing, while actually making the systems do it is another matter – and a lot of work.

For whatever reason (likely because it’s not been as easy as the plan projected), the timeline for IV has slipped repeatedly, and is now months behind where earlier versions predicted.  The system remained in pilot until August 2017 when it was opened up to the entire mailing community – “live” testing apparently being preferred to more tests with proxy data.

However, the industry is still finding and reporting issues – resulting in frustration for both the postal contractors building the system and the mailing service companies trying to use it while the bugs are being shaken out.

For example, at first, data was being sent to the wrong recipients (defined by MIDs), but that was corrected.  Then there were missing scans, but pilot participants found that the data actually was being provided at the MID STID level.  It appeared there were operation codes that weren’t coming over; programmers now are working to identify those codes and provide them.  The quantity of scans also appeared to be a bit different when comparing the legacy system to IV.  And the last major issue – so far – is the large quantity of apparent duplicates within the IV data feed.  So, yes, there were bugs, and some remain, but there’s progress.

There’s also a time crunch from a deadline established by the Postal Service for how data is transferred.  Though recently re-scheduled to November 30, the deadline is when the USPS will no longer support both non-secure FTP and IMb Tracing, meaning that to continue receiving piece and bundle mail tracking visibility, users will need to migrate to IV, and any IV users receiving data via FTP must also convert to secure FTP.

Another wrinkle: while the fixes are being made, test participants note that the postal IV team is trying to present new features, causing push-back from the industry.  “Why don’t you spend the time fixing the data and instead of giving me more features with wrong data,” one frustrated pilot test participant asked, not entirely rhetorically.  Such circumstances have led some pilot participants to conclude that postal management appears to be pushing along with IV deployment while not giving adequate attention to the issues they’ve raised.  The agency has sent out two emails, they note, that essentially say “c’mon in, the water’s fine.”

An example is a recent message sent to mailers

“… because your Customer Registration ID (CRID) and Mailer ID (MID) have been identified as being impacted by the rollout of the Informed Visibility (IV) application.  Please read this email carefully for steps you will need to take.”

The email continues to explain what IV is all about, but offers a curious deadline:

“Before users are able to access IV, customer information in these legacy systems will be migrated to IV.  On August 5, 2017, the IV Team took a ‘snapshot’ of the customer information in the legacy systems and populated the information into the IV application by conducting an automated migration of active subscriptions.  The legacy systems will remain available during and for a time following the migration.  However, any changes made by users in the legacy systems after August 5 will not be recorded in IV.  After this date, such changes will need to be made manually in IV to match information in the legacy systems.  Legacy system users will be able to get access to the IV application as early as August 15.”

This message was dated August 15 – ten days after the “snapshot” date cited in the body of the message – after which updated information would have to be entered manually.  How mailers who weren’t informed of this event – until ten days after it happened – were supposed to make the necessary adjustments wasn’t clear.

To be fair, IV promises to be a valuable tool for mail producers and their clients, but it isn’t a simple system in any aspect, and the challenges (and cost) of rolling it out shouldn’t be dismissed as inconsequential.  Nonetheless, what some in the mailing industry consider a “shoot-ready-aim” process has fostered the perception that, even as more participants are invited and more staff is assigned to add new features, the USPS isn’t giving proper attention to the basic task of simply ensuring that accurate data is being provided.  As one participant observed, “for a company that preaches LEAN process management, what it’s practicing for IV implementation seems to be very un-LEAN.”

This posting is based on an article in a recent issue of Mailers Hub News, a bi-weekly publication provided to subscribers.  For information about Mailers Hub or to subscribe, visit www.MailersHub.com.

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