Pitfalls in complicated systems

January 9, 2012

I have this sense we complicate things in the name of heightened efficiency that then get the better of us and undermine efficiency in their flawed implementation.  So, when I got a concrete example of that today, I thought I’d mention it.

It has to do with the “plus four” part of zip codes.  I was addressing envelopes and noticed I had new and different “plus four” sequences for two of the addresses.  And since one of them was to someone who had himself long used an outdated zip code for me (with the result that one year a package he sent had to make the trek twice between Boulder, CO and Arlington, MA before I received it), I decided to ask the folks at the Post Office to check whether the codes were correct.

It turned out one was and one wasn’t, according to the P.O. clerk.  He had me cross out the incorrect one, and suggested I just not use “plus four” codes at all.  I don’t know, but that struck me as odd — I thought we were supposed to use the full zip codes in order to do our part towards greater efficiency for our much-beleaguered Post Office (my letter carrier claims the real culprit in their financial mess is a lobby for UPS trying to undermine the USPS financial footing).

I’m getting the variant “plus four” codes from return address stickers my correspondents use, so another point of intervention would be in the use of those or in their production — my correspondents could stop using them, correct them, or I could ignore them, or the companies who produce them could doublecheck the accuracy of their information before they print the stickers up.

Whatever, it’s no big deal, but it does, at least to me, illustrate how systems that sound so good on paper can become bigger problems than they were intended to solve in the first place, through pitfalls in their implementation.

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