Document production workflows can be fragile things. The process of creating printed documents from data acquisition to depositing mail at the post office is frequently a series of complex unconnected steps. Anything could go wrong — and sometimes it does! Automation helps alleviate some of the issues, but producing mail in most shops still relies on humans to perform certain functions in specific ways at the right times. That’s usually where problems occur.
Being in the service provider business for over 20 years, and working as a consultant for almost as long, I’ve witnessed some well-managed mail production processes grind to a halt. In most cases, that’s a good thing. Though stomping on the brakes is painful, it’s much better than unknowingly putting thousands of bad documents into the mailstream.
Here are six situations I’ve observed that can halt production.
Slack Quality Control Procedures
In a good number of cases, a problem revealed in the latter stages of the production workflow, such as mail inserting, can be traced back to an upstream error that should have been caught if existing quality control steps had been performed.
A good example is when documents are printed on the wrong paper stock or in the wrong orientation. This error occurs most often in organizations running cut sheet printers. I’ve seen jobs printed on the wrong side of the paper, printed upside down (usually on perforated blank forms), or printed on the wrong forms. After starting a job, printer operators are supposed to compare the output to a print sample in a provided job jacket. If quality control is skipped, the error might not be noticed until attempting to fold and insert the documents into envelopes. By then, it’s too late to rerun and still make the deadline.
Faulty Inventory Control
This issue can cause jobs to be pulled off the inserter if the warehouse contains insufficient quantities of outside envelopes, inserts, or reply envelopes. I’ve seen this happen when leftover stock is returned to the warehouse and stored in the wrong location. When the job is run the next time, the warehouseman stages the envelopes or inserts for the inserter operators, who don’t discover they are short of materials until they open a carton and find the contents are meant for a different job.
Envelope and preprinted form cartons frequently all look the same. A sample is sometimes glued to the ends of the cartons, but many materials are similar, with only a division name or a PO box in the return address distinguishing one from another. Restocking errors are easy to make, distorting physical inventory counts. Material doesn’t get reordered and an eventual shortage occurs.
Data files present lots of opportunities for mistakes that can cause production control analysts to stop, back up, and rerun job steps. With high volume jobs, the time it takes to recover from human mistakes can put service level agreements in jeopardy.
I’ve seen many operations where parts of the data processes are automated and other parts are not. For instance, clients may send data files to a print/mail service provider via FTP where the information resides in a hot folder. An automated process watching the folder takes the data and performs the next step, such as reformatting, standardizing, or deduping. To get the next process in the workflow underway however, requires a person to start up an application, such as CASS processing or presorting, and point the software to the appropriate file. A momentary lack of attention or distraction can cause an employee to process an old data file or mistake one client’s file for another.
The results of data manipulation errors may be noticed when record counts don’t match expected results, but it’s not always easy for the staff to spot problems of this nature. If a company makes a data error and fails to perform quality control procedures, print/mail service providers will put the faulty documents in the mail. The result is an expensive and embarrassing mailing disaster that triggers an emergency rerun.
Another data-related problem occurs when employees use the right files, but the wrong settings. A classic mistake is one made during the presort process. Using the wrong settings file can cause the software to associate mail with the wrong permit or calculate improper mail tray breaks, based on the envelope thickness specified in the presort software. This error probably won’t be discovered until an inserter operator notices their mail trays are only partially full.
Outdated or Missing Documentation
Documentation can create problems that halt production or cause reruns. I’ve seen cases where companies didn’t replace print and envelope samples or update other operating procedures when the jobs changed. Everything ran smoothly until a key employee, who knew of the changes and didn’t rely on the documentation, was absent. The operator filling in for a vacationing co-worker checked the documentation, saw the job didn’t match, and stopped processing. The operator did the right thing, but the delay wouldn’t have happened if the documentation had been kept current.
I was visiting the in-plant mail operations center for a financial institution. They were inserting variable-page account statements. At the end of the job they discovered the envelope count provided by the inserting equipment didn’t match the control total. This told them an envelope was double-stuffed.
The company’s procedure was to set the job aside and alert the quality control team. The team had two hours to find the double-stuffed envelope by manual inspection and weighing the envelopes. If they couldn’t find the error buried somewhere in the completed mail trays, the entire job was shredded, re-printed, and inserted again.
Because the errors weren’t discovered at the time they happened, the quality control process didn’t reveal the cause of the problem. The double-stuffed envelope could have been caused by a machine read error at the the inserter, pages could have been out of sequence, or a page could have been missing. It was impossible for the company to know if they had a printing problem, an operator problem, or an inserting equipment problem. As a result, they had no opportunity to correct it and the errors continued to disrupt production from time to time.
The obvious response was to abandon batch balancing and use a camera system on the inserter and file-based processing to identify such errors and stop the machine, which is what we recommended. After adding a camera system, double-stuffed envelopes will cause the inserting machine to stop. Operators remove the suspected errant mail pieces and resume production with minimal interruption.
Any time humans intervene to enable document production workflows, production-impeding mistakes can occur. Complete automation isn’t an option for many print/mail production shops, so they must develop tests and processes at every job step. Continuously verifying all critical job aspects is the only way to avoid conditions that cause major disruptions or reruns. Limiting quality control to be performed only after jobs are complete makes it difficult to recover from the occasional human error that happens upstream.
Production workflow disruptions cost money.
· Machine operators are idle when production halts and their employers pay overtime wages to make up for the interruption.
· Staffers spend time investigating the issues and fixing them
· Reruns consume paper, envelopes, ink, and toner
· Service providers pay penalties for missing SLA deadlines
· Late mail that misses the presort cutoff time gets sent directly to the post office, increasing the postage costs
Print/mail operations can reduce the number of disruptions by automating the workflow whenever possible, reducing the chances of human error. Make sure quality control processes are established, and consistently remind employees to perform them. Review the entire workflow to spot steps vulnerable to mishaps and make the changes necessary to reduce risk.
Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps his clients meet the challenges they encounter in document operations and creates informational content for vendors and service providers in the document industry. Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, send a connection request on LinkedIn, or contact Mike directly at firstname.lastname@example.org