July 27 2006 04:49 PM

Consider the sheer volume of business mail that is sent and received. By year-end, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver about 70 billion pieces of mail to more than 46,000 business locations throughout the United States. We're talking about real, tangible mail not digital messaging received via e-mail. In fact, trends indicate that e-mail and electronic commerce are actually contributing to the growth of business mail such as company correspondence, direct mail, bill payments and contracts. To put this into perspective, the total volume of today's business mail could cover the entire state of Arizona with a layer of mail. Laid end to end, this same mail could span the globe 1,000 times or stretch to the moon more than 40 times. This influx of mail is challenging today's mail center managers because they must cut costs yet improve internal processes and outgoing services to customers.


Overcoming challenges within an organization involves constant re-evaluation of existing programs as well as the introduction of new processes and solutions to improve performance. From inception to implementation, the actual results of a suggested solution can differ greatly from the expected results. Consequently, gaps between the expected results and the actual results are target areas for improvement.


The concept of analyzing gaps has existed since Socrates and was most recently popularized with the ServQual model introduced by Valerie Zeithaml, A. Parasuraman and Leonard Berry. Used by consulting firms to help service providers become more focused on efficiency and productivity, gap analysis determines an appropriate corrective action plan by analyzing data obtained from surveys and advanced statistical techniques. Simply stated, gap analysis is a method of comparing two items to identify the differences between them.


Gap analysis success is obtained by developing an understanding of the "gaps" between what a customer or an organization expects and what is actually being produced. In other words, it is the way it could be versus the way it is. The goal is to identify the gaps or discrepancies within a process and implement solutions that close the gaps, thereby improving performance. This concept has been successfully applied in a variety of organizations. From insurance companies to hotels, major universities to libraries and manufacturing facilities to corporate offices, the benefits of gap analysis can be seen in reduced costs, increased productivity, improved accuracy and faster, more consistent service.


Process Automation in the Mail Center

In the 20th century, process automation attracted investigation at all organizational levels and companies earnestly searched for ways to increase workflow, improve service and reduce costs. Process innovators like pioneer Henry Ford and today's Tom Peters have revolutionized the way tasks are performed. By the 1990s, the burgeoning mailing automation industry began to offer affordable improvements to the historically slow, complicated, expensive and unreliable process automation solutions of the corporate mail center.


In most organizations, three primary groups are concerned about mail: management and the rest of the organization; outside stakeholders such as vendors, customers and investors; and external postal and private delivery services. As organizations place increased performance demands on mail centers, each group is effected by gaps that occur in the areas of accuracy, throughput, performance and consistency.



When mail center processes require frequent handling of the mail to prepare it for delivery, gaps in accuracy can often occur. The propensity for human error supports a disparity between the expected and actual accuracy of the mail sort. Gaps in accuracy can cost organizations considerable amounts of money in postage penalties as well as lost revenue due to late deliveries or non-delivery. Consequently, accuracy gaps can compromise integrity within an organization, with outside stakeholders and with external postal or delivery services.



Gaps can occur in throughput when the expected turnaround time of a mail sort is less than the actual turnaround time. Physiological limitations preclude humans the ability to process mail as rapidly as a mechanized system. As a result, the forward motion of an organization's communication directive, including direct mail and interoffice mail, is relegated to slow motion when the program hinges on human limitations.



Performance gaps occur every minute that a solution to improve actual results is ignored. As long as solutions are available to offer measurable increases in accuracy, throughput, productivity and profitability and room for improving a performance gap exists. What mail center wouldn't want to exceed expectations, beat deadlines and set the example for any organization? What mail center wouldn't want to be a source of revenue for any organization? Narrowing the performance gap is the answer.



Consistency gaps are evident when turnover impedes skill development, resulting in missed deadlines and delayed mail pickup times. Imagine the frustration of explaining complex processes to new employees who are unfamiliar with mail operations. Gaps also occur when mail pickup and delivery times differ from day to day. Organizations depend on consistent mail pickup and delivery to ensure successful business communications both inside and outside the organization.


Processing Outgoing Mail

By applying simplified gap analysis concepts to traditional mail operations, evidence shows that gaps are successfully closed through mail processing automation. Today's high-speed letter sorting, flat sorting and document processing solutions that are configured with advanced multiline optical character recognition (MLOCR) systems and supported by robust material handling systems are capable of managing even the most challenging mixed mail of a business environment. With throughput capabilities in excess of 36,000 pieces per hour, recognition rates nearing 100% and the computing potential of a fully integrated network, mail centers equipped with automated sorting equipment have closed significant gaps. Furthermore, recent advancements in mailing automation technology, such as automatic sort scheme generation, offline automatic reject repair, 12-inch field-of-view MLOCR systems and document tracking capabilities from mailpiece creation to delivery, make sorting accuracy and throughput gaps in a business environment almost negligible.


Implementing an automation program for a mail center narrows the gap between the mail center's potential and actual performance. The limited training requirements of automation solutions and electronic reporting capabilities provide management with the necessary documentation to prove measurable results. Today's technically advanced, fast and easy-to-use mail-processing automation systems bring value to the mail center as a well-documented and accepted method of narrowing gaps through increased accuracy, throughput, performance and consistency.


Processing Incoming Mail

While incentives like postage discounts and later drop times contribute to the focus on outgoing mail processing automation, similar interest should be developed regarding incoming mail operations. Like outgoing mail processes, gaps exist in the accuracy, throughput, performance and consistency of incoming mail processes. Organizations expect accurate and prompt delivery of incoming mail to contribute to the efficient flow of business communication. Because incoming mail can come in a variety of sizes, shapes, weights and design, sorting incoming mail was previously a manual process.


From the "single person hand sorting to pigeon holes" environment to the "high-volume, multi-building, multi-personnel, mail drop," the variables and complexity of processing incoming mail do not limit the capabilities of today's solutions. Voice recognition systems integrated with error-proof indicator and warning lights, advanced sorting systems integrated with industry-proven MLOCR technology and high-speed mixed mail sorting hardware are solutions that offer the flexibility of accurately handling incoming Standard A, First Class, handwritten, letter, flat and even interoffice mail. Not unlike outgoing solutions, incoming solutions offer reject repair for the most difficult mailpieces to ensure that no items are separated from the mail stream.


Just as the U.S. Postal Service requires detailed reports from outgoing processing, incoming mail centers receive the same level of accountability from today's incoming automation solutions. In addition to detailed reporting capabilities, the document-tracking feature is an option that provides real-time delivery notification via e-mail to the intended recipient, thereby reducing the number of inquiries made to the mail center.


Sorting and delivery accuracy in an incoming environment can be limited by an organization's address database and by the fields in which a mailpiece is identified. Nevertheless, today's solutions offer real-time database referencing and maintenance and feature sorting algorithms that permit sorting by broad or narrow parameters. Delivery to a building, to independent mail drops or even to a specific desk is easily accomplished with today's incoming mail solutions.


Whether the mail center has a few hundred pieces or several thousand pieces of mail daily, solutions exist for every mail center. Recent advancements in voice recognition technology provide mail centers the opportunity to narrow gaps in manual sorting processes by applying affordable semi-automation. A semi-automatic system is a unique cabinet sorting system integrated with advanced electronics and software. Natural voice recognition software allows multiple users to sort incoming mail by simply reading aloud or typing the addressee's name and advanced technology illuminates the bin destination of the mailpiece. By combining photocell · technology with the advanced voice recognition technology, users have the luxury of eliminating virtually every sorting mistake. Indicator lights direct the user to the destination bin and warning lights restrict the user from leaving the mailpiece in the incorrect bin. Like the larger, fully automated sorting solutions, the semi-automated solution offers real-time database referencing and corrections, detailed sorting reports and networking capabilities. An affordable semi-automatic solution can contribute just as significantly to the reduction of accuracy, throughput and performance gaps as a fully automated solution.


Training requirements are minimal with a semi-automatic system. New users can be fully trained in as little as 10 minutes. Empirical data confirms that if a mail center staff can read and respond to a light, mail sortation by that employee is done at least three times faster than when traditional manual sorting methods are used. Thus, minimal training requirements coupled with advanced technology contribute to a more efficient mail center that consistently processes the mail quickly and correctly.


The bottom line is that the versatility of today's incoming sorting solutions eliminates the necessity for mail centers to rely only on manual sorting. Whether a facility prefers to fully automate or ease into automation, mail centers can significantly reduce gaps in accuracy, throughput, performance and consistency by implementing an automation program to facilitate positive results.


The Numbers Won't Lie

If delays in delivery, lost or misrouted mail, missed payments or deposits, frequent turnover or any number of frustrations are present in the mail center, gaps exist. Until the gaps in mail centers are addressed, the mail center will continue to be a drain on resources. The challenge is to investigate areas that exhibit gaps, determine a course of action, invest in a solution and measure the improvement. Consider the sheer volume of business mail. Recognize the impact mail has on your organization. Decide today to make the mail center part of the solution through process automation.


Nathan Woodmansee is a marketing analyst specializing in mail technology research. Mike Howell is a marketing professional and an adjunct professor at the University of Tulsa College of Business. Both are currently employed  at Lockheed Martin Distribution Technologies.  For more information about gap analysis and streamlining mail center operations, please contact Nathan Woodmansee at 800-878-7849 or you can contact him by e-mail at nathan.woodmansee@lmco.com.