Samurai Surgery at Postal Service

September 03, 1992

Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon didn't earn his nickname of "Carvin' Marvin" by standing over the dining room table dissecting a Thanksgiving turkey. He won it by chopping overhead to the bone at the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now he has embarked on an even more massive surgical procedure at the U.S. Postal Service.

Phase One hit the military-like bureaucracy last month when Mr. Runyon announced a 25 percent cut in management ranks through early retirement buyouts. Some 30,000 jobs will be abolished and the entire flow chart simplified. He has designated 11 area management offices to control postal activities -- replacing 174 regional, divisional and management centers.

The idea is to trim much of the bureaucratic fat that has accumulated over the decades. Mr. Runyon said the Postal Service needs to be "more accountable, more credible and more competitive." It has to start acting more like a business and less like an entrenched, rigid hierarchy.

So 42 assistant postmasters general will be reduced to 24 vice presidents. The 73 regional divisions will be eliminated. The buyouts should save the Postal Service $2.1 billion over two years.

Mr. Runyon is bringing Japanese management skills he learned as president of Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp., U.S.A., to his latest task. That means further downsizing in management ranks later on. It almost certainly means a second phase cutback of unionized workers, who now total 606,668. Since more than 80 percent of the service's costs are labor-related, staff reductions are inevitable if higher postal rates are to be delayed.

Automation begun under former Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank should make it easier for Mr. Runyon to downsize blue-collar ranks through attrition. It also could lead to better mail service later in the decade. But no one should be deceived that creating a more efficient and less costly Postal Service will be easy. Not when this huge agency must handle 540 million pieces of mail each day, delivered to 92 million households and 7 million businesses. It is an immense undertaking, but one that Carvin' Marvin feels is tailor-made for his brand of samurai surgery.

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