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Oct. 20 2014 01:30 PM

Try as they might to make sure they discuss all the project details in advance and acquire test files in plenty of time, there are bound to be surprises that occasionally show up for document operations managers on production day. Anytime an unexpected development in a printing and mailing job pops up at the last minute managers can be faced with a tough decision:

A. Pull the job back to make the adjustments and re-test, thereby missing the projected mailing date.

B. Mail the job as-is, knowing it won't be completely correct but feeling confident about blaming the consequences on the customer's inability to communicate accurate specifications.

C. Figure out a workaround that will address the new conditions but still allow for meeting the agreed mailing date.

Well, I hope "B" doesn't really happen very often. But if you've been in the document print and mail business for any length of time, you've probably run into this kind of situation. Some of those times you might choose solution "C." I call those reactions to unanticipated but urgent conditions "quick and dirty" fixes. They are quick because they have to be - there's often no time for detailed design and analysis. And they are dirty because they are implemented without the benefit of exhaustive testing.

There's nothing wrong with quick and dirty solutions so long as one allocates enough time for a thorough quality check before the work goes out. Just don't let a temporary solution make its way into standard operating procedures. Quick and dirty fixes are designed to address a very specific set of circumstances. A permanent solution needs to be more comprehensive.

Here are some ideas from around the world of print and mail that document professionals have used to get them beyond an unexpected obstacle and get the work out on time:

Deduping: If you don't have a commercial merge/purge utility, you can eliminate records with identical values in whatever fields you designate, even if the fields are not contiguous. The duplicate records do not need to be consecutive. They may be scattered throughout the file. Use the concatenate function of Excel to create a new column containing values from the fields that define a duplicate for a particular job. Save as a CSV file. Import the CSV file into Access and define your new column as the index field. Since Access doesn't allow duplicate keys, only one of the records with identical values will be retained.

Hint: Excel can do some marvelous things to fix up data and make print programs less complex. When using any of Excel's functions to manipulate the data, be sure to save as a CSV file for feeding into the next process. Saving as an Excel workbook retains only the formulas, not the reformatted data created by the formulas.

Extra Address Lines: Sometimes there are only a few records in a job that have more address lines than will fit in the window. Simply locate these records via a filter or search in a text editor or Excel. On a simple mail/merge you may be able to manually change the font size on those extra-long records right in the composed documents. Otherwise, filter the non-conforming records out to a file by themselves. Make a separate production run after reducing the document's defined font size for the address block.

Forewarned is forearmed. Rick Novak, of International Mailing Systems notes, "We have our DP department give us a small summary of first data record, max lines data record, max width data record and last data record. Solves a lot of problems."

Running out of inserts: Sometimes customers don't account for spoilage or their print vendors somehow fail to send the entire order to the mail house. Running out of material for an inserting job on graveyard or over the weekend can be a big problem. Without preauthorization from the customer, operators will probably pull the job off the machine. Production takes a hit because of excess changeovers. To avoid this situation estimate the quantity of inserts as they are received. Request more if there is time or add authorized "run short" guidelines to the operator's job instructions.

What a difference the direction makes: Mele Printing, LLC had inherited a job from an acquired company that had seemingly been making production more difficult than it needed to be. Stuart Masson related how simply changing the sort sequence of documents from East-West to North-South eliminated a time-consuming (and probably error-prone) manual collation step.

Avoiding "Dear whatsyournane," salutations: Personalization is great - when it's accurate. If your document composition software is plugging the customer's first name into a letter and has no logic to substitute some other value when first name is blank, the letters are going to look highly impersonal. When there's no time to go back and change the program logic, use a text editor or Excel to locate the records with the missing data and modify the database itself by filling the first name field with whatever default salutation is appropriate.

Clipboard balancing: If you don't have time to set up automated document integrity and must resort to a manual method, break large inserting or matching jobs into manageable batches. That way, if there is a double-stuff or mismatch the operators will have only a small number of envelopes to examine instead of searching through the entire job. I once created a little routine for cut sheet lasers that inserted a colored piece of paper at specific intervals. Mail machine operators knew they had to stop and balance each batch whenever they encountered the colored sheets. On the balancing pages we printed the first account holder in the batch, the last account holder, the total number of pages and the total number of envelopes.

During my career in the service bureau business and life as a consultant I've witnessed all the situations described here. It is never convenient to deal with the unexpected - especially when you have looming deadlines or a mountain of work to process. Having a few tricks up your sleeve will reduce the stress. Quick and dirty fixes could save the day.


It would be nice if the test data and material specifications provided in the planning stage of a mailing project always matched what shows up (sometimes at the last minute) for production. That isn't always the case. Here are a few of the areas we've seen where a surprise development prompted a quick and dirty response

Extra or missing fields in the production data file (sometimes caused by embedded commas or quotes in some variable data values)
Long data values that won't fit when printed in the allocated space
Extra address lines not included in the test file
File size exceeds data transmission limits

Insufficient quantity of custom paper stock, envelopes, or inserts
Improperly positioned form elements or envelope windows
Improperly folded inserts
Inserts are too light/too heavy to process consistently
Inserts are too tall for the outbound envelopes
Ink that transfers to printer or inserter rollers
Mail piece length to height aspect ratios exceed postal standards
Deep perforations cause material to separate during handling
Glassine windows or envelope construction impedes smooth insertion into envelopes
Envelope flaps sticking together
Edge curl

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, a firm that helps companies lower costs, develop future strategies, and improve quality in their document operations. Connect with Mike directly at Or visit and sign up for Practical Stuff, a free newsletter for document print and mail professionals.