A couple of years ago I wrote an article referencing a study of best practices in document operations. The survey revealed a surprising fact that a fairly large portion of the document industry was getting by without the benefit of some basic components of a modern production workflow.

Since that time, some companies have upgraded their tools and processes. They are ready for the challenges that lie ahead for this industry.

But not every document operation has made the investments necessary to ensure they can provide the types of services their customers are likely to demand.

In my opinion it is no longer possible to support growth in print and mail operations without updating services and implementing systematic controls.

This becomes crucial as the documents become more personalized, more targeted, and therefore more valuable. Customers are demanding better returns on the investments made in printed documents and they will expect complete tracking to tell them which documents were distributed through various channels. Document processing organizations that cannot create and distribute these critical documents with the accuracy, integrity, and security that is desired will lose the work to other shops that can meet those requirements.

Are you preparing for the future or still just getting by?
We've seen a lot of operations run their businesses daily under a patchwork of manually-intensive, one-of-a-kind processes developed to meet the requirements of a particular account or application. When there are more exceptions than rules the risk of failure increases.

If a critical employee leaves the company or expansion results in the addition of new staff members, organizations often see errors start to increase. The experienced resources that formerly caught and fixed mistakes "on the fly" may no longer be part of the daily process, so the errors slip through. I saw this happen first hand. We had no idea the accuracy of our output was so dependent upon the independent actions of a few employees!

Most managers would agree an environment of looming deadlines is not the best time to discover the old clipboard-based quality control system doesn't support the 100% integrity and tracking functionality customers demand. Expecting decades-old processes to continue to provide new flexibility and functionality is not recommended. And job-specific unique approaches don't scale very well so they limit the organization's ability to bring on more work.

Get your house in order
Document print and mail operations can be ready to meet the challenges that are certainly going to be part of the communications business in coming years. But to do so, managers will want to streamline processes, cut out any unnecessary workarounds that may have been developed over the years, and eliminate redundant tools and tasks.

The manual, semi-manual, or unconnected production workflow methods that may have been sufficient in the past could be a source of frustration, delay, or errors in the future. To deliver topnotch service, it will be necessary to make some changes.

Typical areas to upgrade
Every organization is different of course, but here are a few items we've seen where improvements can make a big difference:

Standardized, repeatable processes - From front-end routines that handle the acceptance and manipulation of data, to document composition, postal processing, sorting, and inserting, more standardization means better productivity and higher quality.

Integrity and tracking - Automated systems should verify that every document contains the correct data and that all pages can be accounted for throughout the production process, through multiple channels of distribution.

Integrated systems - Spending time manually entering the same data into multiple systems should no longer be necessary. These tasks add to overhead costs, increase risk, and decrease profits.

Multi-channel - Customers have seen the benefits of communicating across multiple channels. Single-channel organizations will gradually lose business to competitors. The real value of multi-channel is integration. Standalone solutions may not be sufficient.

Document operations that haven't yet implemented the tools necessary to produce the products customers are demanding, at a competitive price, will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain business. Take a look at your production workflow and locate those steps where your current solution could benefit from some improvements and start planning for implementation today.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm helping companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. Connect with Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com. Or visit www.printmailconsultants.com and sign up for Practical Stuff - the free newsletter for document operations professionals.