the sky floor

Automation: What Helpful Lessons Can the USPS Can Teach Us About It?

September 9, 2022
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Trigger warning: this post contains depictions of failed automation, excess details about changing addresses, and faceless bureaucracies. Read at your own risk.

When we bought our first home, we purchased from owners with our same last name, Miller. Of course, they set up a mail forward to their new address on the other side of town – which worked… for a short time. But before long, we started accumulating their mail. Frustrating for them and us, but not too big of a deal on its own.

But we must go back a little longer to get the full effect of what ends up happening. You may know that we are twins and naturally share the exact birthdate and surname. In an act of sheer coincidental providence, we ended up living on the same block on different streets about 1 mile apart, so our house numbers for a season were 229 (even more oddly, we were born on 2/29). To make matters worse, we each had to live with our parents for short seasons (separate seasons, luckily) while we waited to close on the houses we were buying. But even before that, my parents lived with my family while they moved from California to the midwest – so even more cross-country forwarding. 

All this to say, there are a lot of Millers in the mix!

Our mail has been messed up for years depending on how the USPS forwarding information was passed back to various businesses. We get mail for my parents; they get mail for us; we get mail for my brother; he receives some for us; he gets some of their mail, and we get the mail of the previous owners of our last house. Round and round it goes. 

The saga isn’t over.

I am writing this because it has been nearly a year since we moved between states from Chicagoland to Northern Michigan, and just this week, I received mail meant for the previous owners of our last house! That change of address happened in 2014. 

Here is the significance, automation works until it doesn’t. Sometimes the human touch is needed to sort through a simple situation that is complex to a computer. Or rather, that the computer hasn’t been designed to deal with. 

So you may ask yourself sometimes, can’t we automate this? But it is worth remembering:

  • Automation isn’t automatic. 
  • Nothing beats human oversight for checking the quality of information.

The breakdown in the forwarding system highlights this reality. Now, the USPS system is far too vast to have someone check each forwarding request, but perhaps in the future, they can make it more intelligent on its own. Until then, this story will highlight how automated systems work until they don’t. And when they don’t, they send mail errantly across the country. 

Takeaways:

  • Never buy houses from or live with anyone (even for short periods) with your common last name. 
  • Automated systems handle the most frequent use cases; the outliers will cause problems.
  • Automation may come with more problems than solutions if you have a complex need. 

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