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The Federal Coach

From innovation to Monty Python: An interview with the U.S. Postal Service's inspector general

David C. Williams is the inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the largest civilian federal agency, which has $67.1 billion in annual revenue. In this role, Williams manages a staff of more than 1,100 employees nationwide who conduct independent audits and investigations for the USPS. He began his career as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service and later served as inspector general for five different federal agencies.

What lessons have you taken away from your experiences as an inspector general for five different federal agencies?

I've really developed a respect for performance metrics and goals. It helps you understand what a good investment you are for the government, or it tells you that you need to increase the value that you have. But what we've discovered, oddly enough, is that when there are reliable performance metrics and goals, it also provides employees with a great deal of choice and frees up managers. Instead of focusing on somebody's behavior, managers can rely on those metrics, freeing them to do higher-order things like stakeholder conversations and planning and construction of solutions that have a deeper impact.

What are the barriers to innovation in the workplace, and how can federal workers overcome them?

A barrier I've come to recognize as being destructive to innovation is viewing work in incremental segments along an assembly line. I think it's much better to keep your eye on the big picture and stay in touch with the world of emerging ideas. I also found that fostering an environment of experimentation helps. There's always a solution, and there's always a much better and fresher way than what we currently have. Particularly in a world that's changing so rapidly, you should constantly be looking for that better way.

I don't believe that people sitting alone will come up with great thoughts. Staying in your office is probably the worst [way] for coming up with a fresh solution. I would advise people to talk to everybody, particularly people that are frustrated. You can't flee from concerned stakeholders; they're the best allies for coming up with innovative ideas. We talk a lot here about maintaining a child-like curiosity, regardless of your age, and a constant obsession with what's next, what's coming at us and what's out there on the horizon. The job ought to be thrilling; and if we don't ruin it, it will be.

How do you maintain contact with your entire workforce?

The most important thing is out-running the rumor mill and making sure that people hear from us. [It's like] the old Monty Python series where there was a Minister of Misinformation; it feels like every office has one of those. We have a daily and weekly publication that briefs everybody on the good and the bad news, and I visit with my field offices and have actual conversations with employees. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet when bad things are happening; if you can get there fast with the truth, everybody relaxes.

Our managers also know it's important that they pass down messages from headquarters, but it's also very important that they pass on the feelings, frustrations or the desires for change from their office to headquarters. As a matter of fact, that's probably the most valuable thing a manager could do here. We try very hard to involve employees in the construction of solutions and to let people know that it's their organization; it isn't mine. I'm trying to serve them.

What is the best way to keep employees engaged and motivated?

Employees know that if they develop an idea with compelling support, it'll carry the day. There's a quote from Victor Hugo that I really love and use a lot, "No army on Earth is powerful enough to stop an idea whose time has come."

The employees also know that if they're out there for the American people, we're going to be there for them, no matter what comes at them. We're in this together.

What do you consider to be a critical event--either educational or experiential--to your becoming the leader you are today?

It would probably go all the way back to when I was serving in Vietnam. There was a captain that I worked for, an Italian guy. We were in one long siege and managed to get ourselves surrounded in a small camp at one point, but he never lost his smile and calm about him. He always [had] a kind of twinkle in his eye like, "maybe if we're lucky we might get a chance for a little adventure out of this." You can't stage that--you're a courageous leader or you're not. He impressed me, and I try to remember the effect his demeanor had on me. I do my best to remember that captain and how much he helped all of us.

Related content from On Leadership:
Postmaster General Pat Donahoe on delivering a new package

By Tom Fox

 |  February 16, 2011; 9:39 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: 'Managing up' in your agency | Next: Ask the FedCoach: Applying leadership concepts in the real world


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On 2-21-01 I mailed 22 certified letters to the Indianapolis Recorder to blow the whistle on official misconduct of police, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct. The US Postal Service claims to have "lost" those letters. The Inspector General was part of the theft. Since then, I have not enjoyed life, libery or the pursuit of happiness. In fact my life has been threatened several times. I sent certified letters to President Obama and Eric Holder begging for an investigation but they have not replied. I have since put 2 videos on Youtube titled " Obama Conspiracy Letters" and " Supreme Court Fraud ". I wonder if the Postal Service stole those letters. It seems that the President is NOT in control.

Posted by: edwinjones | February 21, 2011 5:06 PM

The Post Office. The leading poster child on why we should not let the government run anything more than we absolutely have to...in fact we should limit their involvement to the military...they ignore the politicians and it works. Everything else the federal government does is broken: Post Office; social security; medicare; department of education (oxymoron); department of state (failed to provide rebuilding teams for Iraq, military took over the job); department of energy (rolling blackouts in the world's greatest nation); department of transportation; etc. etc.

Posted by: staterighter | February 21, 2011 5:00 PM

For all those criticizing the U.S. Postal service, it is far cheaper to send something by U.S. Priority Mail than it is to send the same thing by FedEx or UPS. Sending a letter to someone by domestic first-class mail costs less than getting a small soda or a small pack of french fries at a fast-food restaurant. The U.S. Postal Service delivers good value for money, and we ought to appreciate their efforts.

Like other federal agencies and public benefit corporations, the U.S. Postal Service has an Inspector General whose job is to try to detect or prevent waste, fraud and abuse, in order for the organization to continue delivering the best possible value for money. If we as taxpayers claim to hate waste, fraud and abuse, we ought to support the IG's efforts to keep the U.S. Postal Service honest and efficient.

Posted by: 02Pete | February 21, 2011 12:14 PM

Not surprising that an interview with the IG unleashes general discontent with USPS.

First, on the interview, I found it a little disappointing because it lacked even basic specifics on what the IG does. Yes, I get it that they investigate and conduct audits. What kind of investigations? What kind of audits? The IG is fond of metrics --- so what metrics did he use to measure the performance of his people? How did they do? As taxpayers, are we getting our money's worth from the IG function?

Moving on to the USPS, you cannot escape the fact that it is dominated by public service unions, on a going out of business curve, and suffering from poor customer relations. This year they have their hand out for gobs more taxpayer $$. If leadership government really wanted to find a way to improve the image of government employees, they would start with a USPS makeover. And that would begin with a consolidation and restructuring of those four union contracts.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | February 21, 2011 5:13 AM

So if the USPS is running with a loss, how come it wastes millions of dollars (32.5 million, I've read) on Lance Armstrong and a bicycling team? What on earth does the postal service have to do with sponsoring professional sports? The USPS should stick with handling mail and not get involved in projects that cost a lot of money and have absolutely nothing to do with its purpose, which is to deliver mail.

Posted by: RichardHode | February 17, 2011 9:42 PM

Obviously the above commenters do not know the difference between the USPS itself and the USPS-Office of Inspector General (OIG), which has investigators and auditors who ferret out fraud, waste and abuse in the USPS and try to save the agency money. Mr. Williams was speaking about his own employees at the OIG, not mail carriers or window clerks because those people do not work for him. The OIG has presented the USPS with numerous audit reports designed to help the USPS change and end inefficent practices.

Posted by: makeitso | February 17, 2011 2:07 PM

No wonder the workers are nuts,,plus the carriers seem to be part time oe a lot are,,one reason i find my mail on the ground at times

Posted by: schmidt1 | February 17, 2011 10:19 AM

I am a strong proponent of USPS. I mail about 2000 parcels per year, about 40% international, In eleven years, I have lost 4 parcels total. The postal systems of the world are absolutely amazing!

In terms of the article, why does Williams hide behind buzzwords? "Freeing up management." From what? Maybe they have too many managers and not enough people interacting with the public. A question for Williams:

I am USPS customer. I spend a lot of money there. Just what is a "stakeholder?" you sure use that term a lot! "Barriers to innovation?" "Incremental segments." Lay off the corporate speak.

If you want innovation, USPS "management" should consult with its customers. That's easy. If I write a letter to the Postmaster General, it is bounced back to my local post office, where nobody has any authority to change a thing.

If you want to track a parcel, it has to go by Express Mail at a ridiculous price. If it is an international shipment, you still can't determine where it is. You used to be able to track parcels most of the way using the US Customs Declaration Number. You can't any more, for reasons nobody can explain.

So, dear Mr. Williams, I am not interested in the corporate smoke you can generate. If you want to communicate with the public use language that can be understood, not jargon from the executive suite.

Have some of your managers carry a bag for a while or work a counter. Skip the "mystery shopper" routine; it has no function. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that USPS has any management at all. I think that it runs on simple inertia and does a fair job at that. It could be so much better if your managers knew something about the business of customer service, but they don't teach that at business school.

Posted by: ewboyle | February 16, 2011 5:41 PM

Sounds like an interview. Nothing interesting here. The USPS does need an overhaul; there is no reason for it not to be making a profit. Too many POs are like the one the commenter above mentions; long line with one or two workers.

Newageblues:I was going to disagree with you and say that it's registered mail rates that should go up. We don't want that stuff anyway as it is junk mail. You do make a good point about impeding exports.
I want less spam snail mail though.

Oh, when did the theme of the mail man going out in snow, rain, wind, etc stop?

Posted by: hebe1 | February 16, 2011 4:58 PM

Something is terribly wrong with how the post office is run. The removal of postal stamp machines make absolutely no sense. We have the most pathetic post office. People are lined up out the door and only one worker is tending to them. Walking around with a glazed stoned faces are the other workers who pretend to be doing something and are doing absolutely nothing. This Inspector General seem like a great guy but he should drop into my post office for a visit. If they would only fire a few of these worthless government slugs, things might run more efficient. I wish this kind man would view the pathetic attitude we see when we go in forced to stand forced to view such inefficiency and indifference.

Posted by: greatgran1 | February 16, 2011 12:14 PM

I paid my congressman thousands to keep our post office off the closing list.

Posted by: blasmaic | February 16, 2011 11:22 AM

One complaint with USPS: Rates for registered mail are too high. They are an impediment to exporters, who need to encouraged, not hindered.

Posted by: newageblues | February 16, 2011 10:57 AM

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