Whether your high-volume mailing operation is an in-house department or a print service provider (PSP), you’re facing increasingly fierce competition across the industry, and this is leading to greater commoditization. End users and customers are demanding lower costs and, at the same time, faster turnarounds — often with same-day service level agreements (SLAs) — and, of course, 100% accuracy. Stepping up to this next level of service means taking a close look at every process in the production cycle and determining how each might be streamlined to run smarter and more efficiently. Developing metrics to measure and analyze the cost-benefit of each of your processes lets you know exactly what’s happening at every stage of production, what’s working well, where the pitfalls and bottlenecks are and what you can do for continuous improvement.

Industry data indicates that larger operations with access to greater funding and resources have generally confronted these challenges successfully, while small to mid-size organizations are more apt to be struggling with time-consuming and error-prone manual processing at certain points in their overall production cycle. While adding updated automation can boost efficiencies, even smaller businesses can improve without huge investments in new equipment or software solutions. The key is to view your production cycle as a whole, focusing on where you can establish your own best practices for a smoother workflow between the various functions to develop quicker ways to get the job done and eliminating manual steps while maintaining and even improving accuracy.

The Inefficiency of a Siloed Approach

Almost all service providers combine multiple solutions to accomplish their end result, with or without full automation. Typically, workflow is complex and based on a siloed approach where segments of document production are drawn from multiple sources, both internal and external. Data uploaded from clients likely arrives in a variety of formats ,and you may be using several different software applications, each performing a single limited function in your production cycle. Linking solutions and processes that were not necessarily designed to work together can trigger a number of problems, most significantly inefficient, unreliable workflow and inconsistent quality. In this environment, manual processing at some points in the workstream may be the only available option. However, you can still find ways to automate wherever possible.

Where to Begin

Begin by putting a number on all of your processes, including the cost of each and how they add or subtract from your bottom line. Identify value-added processes and work to improve or eliminate those non-value-added processes that only drain overall production and profitability. Measuring downtime and the reasons for it is one obvious place to start, and also consider what kind of impact this has on your overall throughput. Operations and finance should work together to calculate the cost of every processing step, including labor costs, as well as developing an ROI analysis on value-added products and services and any potential changes or improvements. For example, compare the cost-benefit of hand addressed labels or inkjetting flats as an extra step versus using a more expensive double window envelope.

Performance metrics applied in other aspects of your operation can also improve efficiencies. This includes measuring departmental performance, developing standards and goals for employee performance and establishing performance incentives. This type of assessment isn’t limited to only internal objectives. Metrics also help you determine customer-level profitability and provide a solid basis for setting correct prices for your products and services. Needless to say, they also help to identify what brings you the greatest profit and what you should be promoting.

Simply put, you cannot make the proper strategic decisions, determine what should be priority, or align your vision and goals with your team without measuring and reporting what is important to your business. This will be one of the best business decisions you make once you decide to make it a focus.

Automate Whenever Possible

Use technology at hand to begin to automate and eliminate manual processing wherever you can. Not only will this increase your turnaround time, but it will also improve accuracy at the same time, therefore reducing your overall cost per piece to produce. For one, barcodes are a feature that is useful in identifying and tracking individual pieces or whole batches of work. Utilizing camera systems lets operators run at full speed without fear of error because the cameras automate quality control (sequence verification, file audit) and can identify errors and automate reprints instantly or put them on hold for the next production run. Cameras can be used to improve accuracy in manual insertion processes as well. Other improvements include using a dashboard to better schedule and control overall production, tracking items individually, and automating reports.

Producing mail is just like any other manufacturing process, and the use of standardization in both process and production is another tactic that can vastly improve efficiency and productivity. In processes, standardization means simplifying and streamlining every step of production as much as possible and training your operators to handle each task in the same, optimally efficient way. You reduce complexity and perfect the process, document it and execute it the same way every time as a standard operating procedure. On the implementation front, the development and use of baseline document design templates can certainly speed up implementation time with designs that also support your streamlined production process. This can include barcode or address locations, placement of sequence numbers or optimal weight or type of consumables. The more you can limit the number of variables when possible, the better off you will be. Plus, you may also find that standardized templates are a value-added service that can be attractive to customers.

Setup time in the production process can destroy any gains in automation if limited to many smaller production runs. Standardization also allows for the batching and/or combining of jobs that use the same consumables or follow the same process. In terms of printing, inkjet technology and a little upfront programming allows you to easily automate what jobs should be combined and batch printed, if the work is predetermined and the business rules can be automated. For the work that is not predetermined, there is also available technology that allows you to combine or commingle work on-demand on the production floor. In terms of inserting, using the same size and type of envelopes for batches of work also makes for faster processing and eliminates exceptions. Additionally, commingling smaller batches of work from different customers is another time and cost-saving possibility and these can be bundled together to meet USPS requirements for additional postal discounts.

Summing Up

For many high-volume mailers, processes, software, and even hardware have been added to solve an immediate challenge or to satisfy a specific customer requirement without much thought about the impact on workflow and broader production cycle. In many cases, this leads to time spent tweaking processes to get them to work, doing manual assists and fixes, and generally wasting both time and money that cut into your organization’s profitability.

The solution to these various and often disparate solutions is to measure their value to you and to your customers and either to improve their efficiency — automating them when possible — or to eliminate them altogether. Improved processes enable faster, more efficient workflow and overall production and will make you more competitive and successful in this highly demanding and competitive marketplace.

Ryan Semanchik is an equity partner and President of Transformations, Inc., developer of Uluro, a comprehensive Customer Communications Management (CCM) software. A CPA, Semanchik’s expertise in operational excellence is gained from 20 years of hands-on production and document management experience laser focused on measurable results. He can be reached at ryans@transfrm.com, or call 615-371-0077. Visit https://www.linkedin.com/company/transformations-inc or https://www.transfrm.com/ for more information.