Print and mail operations job documentation can be a nuisance. As jobs change, keeping records up to date is a chore. Documentation is usually the last thing service providers address as they develop and implement new applications. Sometimes work flows right into production without the benefit of written instructions, and the documentation never gets done.


What if a mailing mistake caused a client to request a copy of your documentation? Would you be confident turning it over, or embarrassed?


Nobody Likes Doing Documentation

I worked in the service provider industry for over 20 years. One of my responsibilities for a time was reviewing and updating processing documentation. I know how hard it is to perform that task. The work is tedious, repetitive, and boring. I didn’t like doing it. I can understand why so many shops deal with outdated or missing documentation.


When I had that job, other tasks were usually more important and always more urgent than updating documentation. I let it slide, as did many of my co-workers tasked with documentation maintenance.


Then something unexpected happened. Our company experienced a sudden growth spurt, and our employee headcount increased by 50%. The company moved experienced staff members to supervisory positions and hired new people to replace them. You can guess what happened — a surge in mistakes!


We found that systems and processes which had functioned flawlessly for years weren’t as bullet-proof as we thought. Experienced people had been catching and fixing problems all along. They didn’t need documentation to tell them what to do. They had learned their jobs and developed personal procedures, trusting memory and experience to handle the details.


The new people had no such experience. They relied on training and the existing documentation (if we could find it) to tell them the steps they should take to process the jobs for which they had responsibility. That wasn’t good enough.


I can’t remember any customers asking to see our process documentation. I’m glad they didn’t. It would have been tough to explain why our written instructions or samples did not match the work being done — especially if a processing error drove the customer inquiry.


Today, the risks are higher than my old days in the document print and mail business. We didn’t have to worry about regulations like HIPAA. Privacy breaches weren’t in the news every week. Now, in a more security conscious world, lack of documentation that might have prevented a mailing mistake can trigger audits, fines, lawsuits, or unwanted oversight for print/mail service providers.


Regularly updating documentation is cheap insurance against regulatory judgements, should something go wrong someday.


What Documentation Should You Have?

Most shops I visit aren’t fully automated. Frequently they process work with the help of automation at points in the workflow, but they haven’t connected these pieces. Much like my old employers, print/mail service providers rely on people to perform certain operations and make decisions every day. To prevent errors caused by inexperienced employees and to protect the organization from regulatory penalties, I recommend documentation include detailed descriptions for every job step in the workflow.


Data Acquisition — How does the data arrive at the processing center? Who initiates data transmissions — the customer or the service provider? What is the data format? When does the data arrive? What is the procedure if the data does not arrive on time? How do you know you got all the data the customer intended to send?


Data Manipulation — Do you need to reformat the data? What reformatting software do you use and what are the settings or variables? What data quality steps are necessary? Must you match data with additional databases? Do you perform postal processing or sorting?


Document Composition — Documentation should include instructions for mapping critical data fields to print positions. Also include references to print resources like fonts, graphics, logos, signatures, or barcodes. For documents containing variable messaging such as marketing or promotional content, describe where this content originates and the criteria for including it.


Printing — Be sure to include a printed sample in your documentation. A sample used for operator verification should accompany the job when it goes to the print room. Does the job use multiple paper stocks? If so, describe the paper characteristics and note the paper drawer assignments. Be sure to include paper orientation instructions so operators load paper facing the correct direction.


Finishing – Documentation should include fold specifications and details about settings for other finishing operations such as hole drilling or binding. If the job is to be inserted and mailed, include samples of the outbound envelopes, return envelopes, and inserts. Does the job feature fixed page counts or variable? Provide inserter operators with information about which inserts to load at each insert station. Inserting instructions may also include guidance about what to do if the insert supply is insufficient to complete the job. Do you continue without the insert, pull the job and wait for more stock, call the customer, or replace the insert with something else? Include descriptions of barcodes or other control devices used in finishing operations.


Mailing — Documentation should include information about postage payment – does the job use metered postage or permit imprint? What is the negotiated postage rate for the job? What mailing class? Are you tracking the mail through the postal system? What happens to undeliverable mail?


Reprints — What is the process to recover damaged documents? Are operators allowed to manually insert items after jams? What logging procedures should be followed when damaged documents are removed from the mail stream? Are reprinted documents mailed separately, added back to the original job, or merged with the next day’s production?


Documentation always seems like a low priority task until you need it, but it’s not something that can be ignored. This is especially true if a shop runs healthcare jobs or other work covered by strict regulations. You could be called upon by customers or regulatory authorities to produce documentation that describes measures to protect mail owners and mail recipients from privacy breaches that can result from mailing mistakes. Don’t make matters worse with insufficient documentation.


Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants works with in plant operations and print/mail service providers to help them be more efficient and productive. Connect with Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com ,follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send a connection request on LinkedIn.

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