Throughout my career, I've worked on all sorts of document jobs. Some of them were simple mail merges, some were a little more complex, and others were extremely intricate. I have made or witnessed mistakes of all kinds and learned they can happen on any type of job - regardless of size or complexity. Most times, the crew caught the errors before they went out into the mail. We avoided the embarrassment of mailing out mistakes by following some basic quality control steps I try hard to include every time.

    Surprisingly, easy jobs can actually be a higher risk than difficult ones. Straightforward applications don't always receive the level of scrutiny they probably deserve. Errors have a greater chance of slipping through when the staff believes nothing could go wrong. Mistakes on simple jobs are just as devastating to a print/mail operation's reputation and future business opportunities as any other misstep.

    Below I've listed a few preventative measures that can be performed by anyone. They don't require an investment in new hardware or software but they have proven to be effective at catching errors before they go out in the mail. These tactics apply to in-house document centers, print/mail service bureaus, printers, or even non-document professionals such as administrative assistants who take on mailing projects themselves. Most importantly, they apply to all the jobs in the shop - not just the new ones or the most difficult.

    SAMPLE OUTPUT - I like to print samples from various parts of the run on paper, preferably on the production printer. I don't rely solely upon screen previews. When performing this test be sure to include different types of accounts or other deviations to verify they are all correctly rendered.

    Do not limit samples to the first 50 in the run! I know that's the easiest process, but the records sorting to the front of the file are often exceptions in some way. Foreign addresses, undeliverables, closed, or inactive accounts don't represent the bulk of the pages the production run will create. It pays to look deeper into the file.

    COMPARING DATA TO OUTPUT - A transformation or data match is part of every document workflow. Every transformation represents a chance for something to go wrong. Pick some records scattered throughout the data files and review the corresponding documents generated by the print program. Ensure the output includes all the intended data fields and none are truncated. Test various print configurations based on data-value rules. Be sure to check for an accurate match among multiple data sources.

    INDEPENDENTLY-CALCULATED BATCH TOTALS - Print and mail processes should count the number of accounts and pages, of course. An additional item such as a dollar total offers an additional chance to catch errors. Print operations used to do this all the time, but the practice seems to have fallen out of favor. The supplier of the data should provide balancing information. If they can't, then the print/mail operation should develop balance totals from the raw data using a different tool than the one composing the documents. It is dangerous to produce both sets of balance totals from within the print programs. If there's an error, it's probably included in both totals.

    SEQUENCE - If the job is supposed to be in zip sequence or should be broken down by number of pages but an unsorted file is sent to the printer by mistake, there may be a problem. The batches might balance, but the finishing steps may be impossible.

    Anything That Can Go Wrong.
    It's important to reinforce the QC processes with the staff on a regular basis. After running jobs for weeks or months with no problems, operators tend to relax their efforts. Once this happens, the quality control procedure is useless. Allowing bad documents out of the building is an expensive way to discover a need to beef up quality control efforts. Especially today, with budgets tight and regulations enforced, you can't afford to have a job go out wrong.

    Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants. He writes about topics of interest to the communications industry. To keep up with Mike's tips, trends, and commentary visit and sign up for Practical Stuff - a free newsletter for customer communication professionals or follow him @PMCmike on Twitter.