As we were working on a project for a client recently, I was reminded about how important it is to follow solid quality control processes. We didn't have a problem, but it was one of those kinds of applications where there was certainly potential. Many times we've saved clients the embarrassment and expense of mailing errant documents by setting up appropriate quality control procedures. So I'm a big believer in checking all you can and making sure you are checking the right things.

Throughout my career, I've worked on all sorts of document jobs. Some of them were pretty brainless mail merges, some were a little more complex, and others were real intricate. Most times, we've caught mistakes before they went out into the mail. Thankfully, there have been very few that we missed. And some of those were the kinds of errors that wouldn't have been caught by any reasonable quality control practice.

You'd think that the tough jobs would be those that contained the most errors. But surprisingly, the easier jobs actually accounted for most of the problems. Maybe it's because operations became complacent and didn't check those as carefully.

I've seen plenty of operations that follow quality control practices that really aren't as effective as the shops believe them to be. Mistakes slip through because the processes they set up are limited to catching only the obvious and common errors. And I've seen numerous instances of errors getting out that would have been caught had the existing QC procedures been followed!

Below I've included a few things to think about when you review your quality control processes. 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.

SAMPLE OUTPUT -- Print out samples from various parts of the run. If you know of some data variations (different types of accounts, different sizes, etc.) then make sure you include some of each group in your sample. And actually print them on paper, preferably on the production printer. Don't rely on screen previews. If the application has documents with variable page counts, pick some documents that have single pages, some with 2 pages, etc. Do not limit your samples to the first 50 in the run! Here's why -- The records that sort to the front of the file are often exceptions in some way. Perhaps they have foreign addresses or undeliverable addresses, maybe they are closed accounts or otherwise inactive. Perhaps they have low account numbers representing accounts that were established before the latest account features or options were introduced. Can you afford to evaluate the quality of the entire run with only documents like these when 99% of the job is generated by non-exceptional data?

COMPARING DATA TO OUTPUT -- A transformation of some kind is usually part of the document workflow. Raw data is changed into composed documents, print-image files are interpreted and sometimes converted to another type of print file, printer escape commands or carriage controls are interpreted, multiple data files are merged, etc. Every transformation represents a chance for something to go wrong. Pick some records scattered throughout the run and look at the corresponding documents that were generated. Check to make sure that all the intended data fields printed and none were truncated. Test various print configurations based on values in the data. Make sure that the match was done accurately if multiple data sources are involved.

COMPARE INDEPENDENTLY-CALCULATED BATCH TOTALS -- Your print process should count the number of accounts and pages, perhaps broken down into different categories. An additional item such as a dollar total increases your chance of catching certain types of errors. The supplier of the data should have provided balancing information. If not, it's a good practice to develop these balance totals from the raw data with a different tool than the one used to create and compose the documents. I've seen shops that produce both sets of balance totals from within the print programs. This is a dangerous practice as the same exact logic computes both sets of totals. If there's an error, it's included in both totals.

PAPER STOCK -- Make sure you've printed on the intended paper stock. I worked with one shop where the cut sheet letter jobs typically got printed on one of three different letterheads. The paper stock all looked similar except for the logo. If the paper didn't get changed between jobs -- presto! A whole run had to be shredded -- assuming someone caught the mistake. Also make sure you've printed on the correct side of the paper and that it's right side up (don't laugh -- I've seen it happen). Check the envelopes and the inserts against the work order or job jacket as well.

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

BARCODES, OCR LINES, MICR -- Check the validity of the barcodes and other special lines that enable automation in some other part of the workflow. It's best to have a barcode reader or MICR scanner that can interpret the codes. If you don't have such a device, some linear barcodes can be decoded by hand. Make sure all the characters are accurately represented in the barcodes and there is no truncation.

PAGE-COUNT BREAKDOWN -- For applications with variable page lengths, a report that provides a count by number of pages is handy. If you see numbers that are unexpected, you need to investigate. There could be a page overflow problem or missing page breaks could result in the combination of multiple accounts.

Anything That Can Go Wrong...
These are just a few of the quality control steps you can take to increase your chances of catching mistakes before the job leaves your shop. Over the years, I've seen each of the errors described above happen on production jobs. But don't use this as a comprehensive list. There are many other job-dependent things that should be checked.

It's important to reinforce the QC processes with your staff on a regular basis. After running jobs for weeks or months with no problems, operators tend to relax their efforts, initialing the QC checklist without really looking at the job with a critical eye. Once this happens, the quality control process is useless. Allowing bad documents out of the building is an expensive way to conclude that you need to beef up your quality control efforts. Especially today, with budgets being tight, you can't really afford to have a job go out wrong.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent project management firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. For more information on training, coaching, or getting your projects done, visit or email Mike directly at