The mailing industry, and the industries in which many mail centers function, is going through a trying period that is making efficiency and quality control more important than ever. For many mail centers, they are finding that they are falling short of being their most efficient. At the same time, they are under unprecedented pressure from industry, client and internal auditors and clients to be more compliant and produce higher quality work. Additionally, the very structure of their operations are changing as mail centers' work is increasingly affected by a print center, or print centers are becoming more integrated with mail centers. But what are the different approaches to achieving these goals for your mail center's unique needs?

Looking in the mirror is the first step. Being introspective and assessing where you and your mail center are today is essential to understanding how you can move forward to manage a more effective operation. As mail centers and print centers are increasingly overlapping and merging duties, you also need to have a clear view of the responsibilities of each. Simply put, the mail center needs to know the scope of information and jobs that it is receiving, and the print center needs to have a clear idea of what it is responsible for sending to the mail center. A unified dashboard - a single source of truth - of all the jobs and output in process is key to keeping everything in check.

Determining your priorities and those of your clients - internal and external - is also important. As an analogy, if you are traveling from New York to Florida, there are a number of ways that you can get there but your choice of transportation will depend on what's important to you. You wouldn't take a nonstop flight if you wanted the experience of a long, scenic road trip. In the same vein, it is not necessary for every mail job to be produced as quickly as possible. Importance and speed are not always synonymous, and when you treat all jobs with a level of urgency they do not demand, you could misuse your resources. For example, in the insurance business, explanation of benefits documents are important, but not always urgent and do not always have to be produced and delivered as quickly as possible. By printing jobs like these every other day instead of every day, you can potentially reduce your mail center's budget by 10%.

The mailing industry is currently in a state of hyper-auditing by both internal and external sources, so knowing what auditors are looking for will help you control quality in your mail center more effectively. A great way to conceptualize all the areas that auditors touch is what's known as the "audit wheel." Auditors want to know about the following in your operation: controls, facts, procedures, planning, methods, risks and how they are managed.

Automation and tracking are a key part of increasing your mail center's efficiency and quality. For each manual step you have in your mail center processes, there is a potential point of failure - more human touch points increase the chances of something going wrong. By placing controls in your documents, such as barcodes, you can track your output better and provide more precise reports by creating an audit trail and capturing more data. Barcodes or machine readable symbologies are important for increasing accuracy, but not all of these symbologies are created equal. Using the reference point of the Six Sigma statistical quality control, which aims to reduce defects to less than 3.4 parts per million, we can determine the effectiveness of various symbologies in reducing defects. For example, Optimal Mark Recognition (OMR) registers at around the five Sigma level on the Six Sigma scale, which translates to 230 defects per million. Three of nine or 2D barcodes, combined with additional technologies, can reach integrity levels of 5.685 to 6 sigma, which translates to fewer than 20 defects per million. Intelligent Mail barcodes (IMb), which are mandated by the USPS, add another level of control and reporting to the tracking process. Applications that do not use any barcodes and depend on inserters to manually detect misfeeds can have over 3,460 defects per million pieces, which is about 4.2 sigma.

You're probably familiar with the concept of the ADF (Automated Document Factory) along with ADF 2.0, in which document design and content integration, input, transformation, production, control and reporting, and response management are all automated. Implementing ADF 2.0 brings many benefits - supporting business decisions, increasing profits, retaining customers, opening up new business opportunities, differentiating from competitors, enhancing communication and creating audit trails.

A less popular concept, the AppDF (Appropriate Document Factory), can be a great alternative that is based on your organization's needs and what you can afford. Think of this as the cousin of ADF, which tends to be used in highly regulated environments. AppDF, as I refer to it, are solutions that can be used in environments that are not as highly regulated, or with just a few customers with mission critical applications. These solutions are great for organizations that have tight timelines and decreased budgets. If you are printing and mailing variable data, AppDF might be the right choice for you. On the other hand, if all of your applications are critical and take place in the context of a regulated industry, then an ADF is a must.

Just as there's an ADF 2.0, there's also an AppDF 2.0. Unlike its predecessor, the AppDF 2.0 is built on regulator demands rather than customer demands, staying in business rather than restricted budgets, and business continuity versus risk tolerance.

So what do you need to do?
· Develop a prioritized list of areas to improve for senior management based on return on investment, compliance issues and ease of execution.
· Reduce costs: equipment, supplies, postage, legal and labor reductions
· Maximize device and labor utilization
· Create automated, efficient workflows
· Increase document integrity and flexibility
· Improve corporate image from better designed documents

Throughout the process, you should also keep these practical tips in mind: Add extra time into the original project plan timeline for additional line of business or user interviews - you'll likely uncover more documents and complex workflows during the data collection phase. In non-ADF environments, data from reports may be unreliable, so listen to subject matter experts (SME) but question and verify the estimates from the "gut" and anecdotal absolute statements that include words like never and always. Realize that good people make bad processes look good. When talking with the SMEs look for the unnecessary extra steps and workarounds that have evolved because of their limited tool set or the "we've always done it like that" methods that they inherited from their predecessors.

Mine for Data: Data resides in many parts of your manual operation, so you need to look in many areas when building the business case and looking for information gaps, such as inserter and printer statistics, paper usage and unbudgeted spending.

To improve your mail center, you also need to step outside of the mail center. Educating your customers - internal and external - on your operations is just as important as taking a critical look at your own operations. If your customers do not understand what it takes for the mail center to meet their demands, they will inevitably make demands that are unreasonable or costly.

Taking a holistic approach grounded in the reality of your industry, your mail center, and your customers will go a long way in making your mail center more efficient, while keeping quality in check. Even when you have achieved your initial goals, don't forget to take another look in the mirror every so often.

Paul Abdool is Director, Production Workflow Automation Practice, Ricoh Americas Corporation.