Dec. 29 2006 11:41 AM

It was one of those "good news/bad news" situations. We were going to lose 60% of our full-time mail sorting staff but could keep 90% of our part-time sorters.


The supervisor accepted my message with reasonable calmness. Then, we began the search for help. We knew the operation was extremely labor intensive. We had looked at Multiple Line Optical Character Reading equipment, but we did not have enough room for the equipment or sufficient volume to cover the cost. We had looked at mechanical sorting equipment, but again lacked the room. Some solutions added steps instead of reducing the process. But the budget demanded an answer.


We asked a senior design team from the Oklahoma State University School of Industrial Engineering to help us. Their teams take a work place problem through the problem-solving process. We asked the team to study our workflow processes. We suggested they investigate voice-activated mail sorting software (where you say a name and the system tells you where to deliver the letter).


They recommended voice-sorting software along with some workflow changes. Their recommendation came with graphs, charts, floor plans and return on investment numbers, and the report made internal approval easy.


Next came the RFP. The senior design team's report told us voice sort automation would help solve the problem, but we needed to refine our needs before we could develop an adequate request.


Some people use the software to sort "mystery mail;" other people use it to train new employees, and still others use it for the primary sort and/or secondary sort. Having only two full-time employees left both earning 22 days of sick leave and 22 days of annual leave a year, and both having been on extended sick leave at the same time we needed the ability to sort our mail using part-time student labor.


We have always used a traditional sorting pattern primary sort to the delivery route level and a secondary sort to the delivery stop level. Throw in the mystery mail, the undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail and the "we're human" mistakes, and we handle each letter at least twice.


The workflow study recommended eliminating the primary sort. Take the letters or flats directly to one delivery route/

delivery stop level, sort the two routes in one handling and then sort the other routes into tubs by route.


We have nine routes, delivering four times daily. We planned to rotate the system so that we would always be sorting two routes to the final destination in one handling. By reducing the handling number, we would increase our productivity, reduce our labor expense and hopefully deliver mail earlier each day. We set a goal of reducing letter handling from two to one time.


Our preferred sort order is department name, individual name, departmental mail address and departmental ZIP+4. A letter without a match is considered UAA. We sort the multiple location departments by individual name first. We asked the manufacturer to program those departments to give a "Name Please" response when the department name is spoken.


Because we have a large number of international students and faculty members, the software must have the following capabilities:

  • Process hard-to-pronounce names

  • Recognize speech patterns from a wide variety of operators

  • Record and store each transaction so that it can generate management reports


    And since we wanted monthly and year-to-date reports, the software had to be able to make five to six million transactions a year without exceeding the limits of the underlying database.


    While it sounded easy to populate the database simply export your HR database in a text file and follow the import rules there were some impediments. For example, some of our departments have as many as six or seven locations. Since the HR database does not differentiate the physical location of the employees, we made one download then added locations to the system database. We then prepared self-addressed cards to add new employees. We then asked the individual depart-ments to complete and return a card each time they issued an Employee Action Form.


    Every company sorts mail a little differently. Your priority list will vary from ours. You need to know your priority to make sure your RFP lets you select the correct system configured to meet your needs. Here are some questions to ask yourself before selecting a solution.

  • Will you apply the U.S. Postal Service's pattern without exception?

  • Will you sort every mailpiece no matter what it takes?

  • How will you process letters with the company name and an individual name only?

  • What happens when an individual is not in your database?

  • Are there special circumstances (the spouse of your president)?

  • If you make individual names the primary sort, departmental mail may be misrouted.

  • If you make department name the first choice, they may have to forward personal mail.


    The answers to these questions will help you define what goes into the database and communicate to your customers information needed to get their support.


    All this information is essential in writing the RFP. We identified three vendors who sold voice sort systems ranging from under $7,000 to over $50,000. They ranged from software only, to turnkey systems that included sort bins. They handle hard-to-pronounce names differently, link multiple systems differently, use different underlying databases and could tailor their systems to our specific needs.


    Remember, you must know what your needs are so that your RFP produces the system you want. Give the vendors room to design a system with your needs in mind.


    Butch Hiatt is manager of Mail Services at Oklahoma State University. For more information, contact him at

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