Editor's Note: This is a second part in a series on developing solutions for complex issues found in today's document production environment.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the statistician turned statistical process control guru who helped the industry understand the virtue of quality, had a simple exercise he used to introduce managers to the virtues of repeatable and measurable production processes. During this exercise, Deming asked six "willing workers" to scoop beads from a box using a special tool. The goal is to select only white beads. Unfortunately, 20% of the beads are red. This makes it nearly impossible to select only white beads.

Deming tried his best to get his willing workers to produce defect-free work (no red beads). It's obvious that the goals he set for the workers were impossible. No matter how hard the workers tried and no matter how much Deming threatened, praised and rewarded them, the system was at fault, not the willing workers. And in a traditional print and mail operation, our task is much like Dr. Deming's exercise we're asked to turn data into printed statements and then into individual mailpieces. But we don't always have the information we need to know, with absolute certainty, that all of the statements that were supposed to be printed were printed and that all of those statements were indeed inserted correctly.

Increasingly, mail is seen as a sophisticated method of customer communication that is tightly integrated within the overall framework of Electronic Billing and Presentment (EBPP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. One of the most interesting trends to emerge in our industry is that the ability to prove a document has been mailed is almost as important as mailing the document itself. Whether the driver is based on an industry regulatory requirement such as HIPPA, the need to interface with workflow and/or CRM systems, it's increasingly important to be able to prove that the right document is in the right envelope and that every document was mailed, each and every time. In our experience, the best way to reach this goal is through predictive inserting, where the characteristics of each mailpiece are known before the first document is printed, the print streams are optimized for production and the devices responsible for inserting the mail look beyond a simple barcode for instruction.

We believe the result of this trend is quietly driving a small revolution in our industry document production is increasingly process-based, and integrity and workflow systems are built in, not bolted on, to document production devices. Our customers look to us to drive finishing equipment with mailpiece level instructions from a database for two key reasons. First, this approach combines total production control with the flexibility to uniquely finish each mailpiece with a set of instructions generated as the document is composed, and rich data on jobs, operators, mailpieces and even media such as forms, envelopes and inserts is gathered during production.

The second reason for the trend of database driven inserting is that when data generated during the document production is open and easily shared with other devices and workflow systems it is possible to create a process-based, zero-defect capable system that extends from document composition, to document finishing, to postage management, to CRM systems and even to USPS postal systems. Manifest mailing systems, for example, have traditionally been seen as cumbersome and without financial reward, but in a data driven environment, manifest mailing can become a key component. Not only does the manifest provide evidence of postage to the USPS, but the detail listing and more importantly, the data behind it provides a detailed record of the characteristics of each and every document in the mail.

Lastly, the drive towards open systems, open standards in our industry, enables mailers to leverage the benefits of increased quality with increased efficiency. In a data driven mailing environment where the user has access to the data produced during the process, it is possible to unlock additional productivity through careful analysis of production metrics. The effect of jam rates, operator performance, page count and set distribution can be easily measured and readily understood, enabling managers to fine-tune their operations through sophisticated queries of detailed production data, not gut-level shop floor analysis.

What's it Take?

In order to create a predictive inserting environment, two things must happen. First, you must gain control of the print stream. In the past, this was a difficult challenge; document composition systems were either homegrown applications written in COBOL or other business languages, and even the best "store bought" composition engines composed pages, not completed documents. This presented a challenge that was often difficult to overcome we often see customers who can tell us how many pages are in a given stack of documents and can sometimes tell us how many accounts are in the stack, but that's about it. And like Dr. Deming's exercise illustrates, unless you have control of the content of your print stream, it's difficult to create an environment where your operators and supervisors can achieve consistent results, day in and day out.

Fortunately, two solutions have emerged in recent years. Document composition engines have become aware of the challenges of physical production, and most leading engines offer the ability to optimize the output stream around the production process and, more importantly, can create a control file that describes the unique characteristics and processing instructions for each piece in the mailing. And for those that are committed to legacy systems, print stream engineering tools now exist that can query a print stream, optimize the stream for production and create a control file for each document in the stream. In either case, the result is the same you now have the information you need to drive your inserting environment with data, rather than to react to the data that drives the print environment.

Once you have control of your data, the next step is to upgrade your inserting environment to use the input file to drive one or more inserters on a network. The machine control barcodes, which traditionally contained processing instructions, simply become pointers to the data that describes the processing instructions for each mailpiece.

The advantages are twofold first, from a production perspective, you now have all of the information needed to know the absolute status of each and every mailpiece in your shop. The document is either waiting to be inserted, being inserted or has already been inserted. It's as simple as that, and the control benefits such a system offers in a high-integrity mailing environment are profound. You can do a system level "late pull" for documents that may have been printed but need to be held back from the mail. You can automate reprint handling and automatically regenerate documents that were damaged in production without manual intervention. Most importantly, you create a positive audit trail of every mailpiece that enters and leaves your shop.

The second benefit of a data driven inserting environment is you can look across multiple print streams to drive job and mailpiece level scheduling and tracking systems as well as advanced reporting systems. This is a key benefit you can model production capacity, interact with other document centric systems such as manifest and postal validation engines and interface with enterprise level CRM systems. In short, the inserting operation becomes a data hub in the larger enterprise, and flexibility and control are enhanced beyond anything possible with a non-predictive system.

The Future Is Now

When an organization makes a commitment to deliver a document via First Class mail it's increasingly a choice, rather than the only method of customer communication. As transactional mail volumes decline due to pressures from alternate delivery channel, the work that remains has become increasingly valuable and quality requirements for that mail continue to rise. The result of this trend is the mail that is sent is increasingly valuable to the organization that makes a commitment to the resources needed to compose a document, commit it to paper and insert and apply postage to the finished mailpiece.

It's all about the data the only absolute way to measure the quality of your work is to know exactly what you were supposed to do, and then verify that you've actually done it. With predictive inserting you know just that, and you'll be rewarded with a level of quality, accuracy and consistency that will ensure that printed mail will remain a viable delivery channel now and in the future.

Peter Somu is principle and Jeff Sutton is consulting partner with Zen Systems, which has years of experience working with industry leaders. Contact the authors at contactus@zensys.com or by phone at 504-288-6202 or 908-369-0225.