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July 10 2020 04:48 AM

Mistakes have always been part of the game when high volumes of paper are imaged, moved, folded, and inserted. Back in my days in the service bureau industry, we had unintelligent inserters and mostly manual QA methods. Occasional mistakes were inevitable, and we suffered for them. With the tools available today — cameras, double-feed detectors, automated workflows, data-driven inserting, and mail piece tracking — the chances of making a mistake that puts improperly assembled mail pieces into the mailstream are greatly reduced. In fact, they shouldn’t occur at all.

Yet I still see news reports of mailing errors from time to time. Just this month, I read a story about citizens receiving documents the state department of labor should have sent to someone else. The mis-mailed documents revealed work history, social security numbers, and other personal information. The explanation was a “faulty printer that caused papers to stick together in a batch of mailers.”

In another outstanding failure, an Ohio man received 55,000 letters concerning his student loan. You may recall that incident. The mistake was reported on the national newscasts.

Why Are Mistakes Still Happening?

These are two recent examples of errors that shouldn’t have happened. Working with high volumes of paper, envelopes, and other materials, we cannot always prevent errors from occurring, but we should be able to catch them before they leave the mail center. I can think of several safeguards and systems normally present in mail inserting operations that can prevent defective mail pieces from entering the mailstream. What happened in these cases? Were all the systems turned off? Was a massive simultaneous failure the cause?

Not likely. Those mistakes, and most of the other incidents that catch my eye, can usually be attributed to a single cause — us. Humans are often a weak link in the document production workflow, particularly when they become complacent and fail to follow basic quality control procedures.

Someone Should Have Noticed

When pages stick together, a count will be off somewhere. It doesn’t even take fancy technology to notice this kind of error. Comparing mechanical machine meters to a clipboard with the expected total could do the trick. Apparently, no one thought to check.

55,000 identical mail pieces? Besides the fact that a quick glance at the printed pages would have raised red flags, a single camera at the end of the inserting line could have caught this error 54,999 envelopes sooner. I can’t imagine anyone handling this volume of transactional mail without at least one camera on the equipment, but maybe the production crew was relying on manual QC. Even without the cameras, someone might have noticed an exceptionally high presort qualification on this mailing and take a peek at the mail trays. It seems no one was paying attention.

Future Mailing Errors Could be Costly

I empathize with the production people involved in accidental mailing errors. I’ve had that sinking feeling that happens when you get a report of a problem. Your mind immediately rushes to a worse-case scenario — like we botched the entire mailing — even if it was just one double-stuffed envelope. But I can’t excuse the act of ignoring quality control procedures. Those measures are set up to catch the kind of mistakes described in the cases I mentioned. The vast majority of the mailing errors I’ve investigated throughout my career could have been prevented, but employees didn’t follow the procedures, and the mistakes slipped through.

Humans can do things that machines, cameras, and software cannot. But only if people complete the tasks they are assigned. This is no time to be careless. The pandemic has thrown print and mail businesses for a loop. When mailers eventually return to their mail campaigns, they’ll be trying to recover too, and they may not excuse a mailing mistake. A single error could cause a client to cease doing business with you. Don’t let that happen because you let your quality control process be ignored.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants creates content for the document industry and helps document operations build and implement strategies for future growth and competitiveness. Learn more about his services and Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.