You might call it a disaster recovery (DR) plan, redundant operations, or business continuity strategy, but your mail center should have something in place that allows you to continue processing the mail should an event occur. As many companies learned in 2020, your business doesn’t need to experience a natural disaster to run into rough times where an alternate processing plan would be beneficial.
Mail centers often think of DR only as a document production facility that’s offsite. Terms such as hot site, cold site, and warm site describe an organization’s readiness to move their physical production away from their primary facilities. Most people imagine disasters as local or regional episodes. Many mail centers contract with national firms who specialize in print/mail disaster recovery. Certainly, mail centers processing critical work for their companies or clients need solutions for traditional disasters. If events render the document processing facility inoperable, you need somewhere to go!
But you also need a plan for other occurrences that can cripple your production capabilities, and possibly everyone else’s at the same time. Your building and equipment need not be ravaged by fire, tornados, or floods to suffer an extended shutdown. With a national (or global) event, the DR services firms may be unable meet the demands of all their clients simultaneously, leaving your company with no way to meet customer commitments.
An Expanded Definition of Disasters
Widespread absenteeism caused by COVID-19, the flu, or any other disease that spreads across your operation put deadlines in jeopardy. Labor disputes can have a similar effect.
If you’re a print/mail service provider, missing SLAs because you don’t have enough operators to run shifts at full production could get expensive. In-plant mail centers that can’t get the invoices out on time or must delay processing incoming payments because of short staffing will hurt corporate cash flow. In some situations, missing mailing deadlines can put your organization at risk for fines or other regulatory actions.
Workforce availability or weather conditions aren’t the only possible production disrupters. Today, you can’t turn on the news without hearing stories about supply chain issues. If you can’t get parts to repair your equipment, your envelope supplier limits order sizes, or ink becomes scarce, you’ve got much of the same issues as if your facility suffered a flood or fire.
Need something else to worry about? How about global warming? Whether you believe climate change is a problem worthy of international action or not, you can’t ignore the fact that some communities implement rolling blackouts when excessive heat puts a strain on the electrical grid. Not only will your equipment not operate when there’s no electricity, it could take several hours to restore the temperature of your facility to a level where it is safe for your workers to run the equipment. Plus, temperature fluctuations can affect paper products, resulting in more jams, decreased throughput, and an increase in reprints. You might even have to discard some paper stock. Swift delivery of replacement paper may be impossible.
External circumstances totally out of your control can also prevent your mailed material from reaching the intended recipients on time. What if there’s a trucking strike? Now that the USPS distributes most mail overland, a labor dispute could strand whole trucks full of mail. Your print/mail facility may not be fiscally responsible for such an occurrence, but delivery delays certainly impact your internal or external customers. Even worse would be a significant terrorist attack because they come with no warning. With a growing state of global unrest, we cannot rule out the possibility, which could be a cyber-attack.
Data Recovery and Portability
In the old days, print/mail DR concentrated on the physical aspects of an operation: Pre-printed forms, inserts, and envelopes were a major focus. Finding a DR partner with the infrastructure to process your proprietary print streams was a major qualification point.
Today, the data drives the document production workflow. If your facility was disabled, would you have access to all the data you need to start production at a different site? Would that data be current? Do you back up the data online so you can restore the information at the alternate location?
No one can create a DR plan that prepares them for interrupted operations from any possible cause. You can, however, do some things now to improve your response, should it ever become necessary. The DR plan you created several years ago may not protect your operation today.
Updating Your DR Plan
One of the first activities to launch when updating your DR plan is assessing the impact of each job you run. What will happen if you can’t create certain pieces of mail? What business groups are affected? How long can you be down before it becomes a problem? Where does each document application fall on the priority list when you begin recovery efforts? Unless you have total hot site redundancy, an event forces you to make choices about which work you will process in a DR situation and which ones will wait.
Another aspect of your revamped DR plan will be communications. In situations like the pandemic, circumstances change rapidly. How will you communicate developments to your clients, suppliers, and employees as you adjust to evolving situations?
Something your old DR plan probably didn’t mention was dealing with employees. You may want to reward those that show up and work hard in undesirable environments. If your regular employees cannot come to work or refuse because of personal safety concerns or caring for family members, consider how you will replace them temporarily. Where will you find these temporary workers, how will you train them, and what incentives will you offer when labor is in high demand?
If you should need to activate your DR plan, how long before it is operational? You’ll need to know this so you can set expectations for your customers and coordinate the efforts of partners, vendors, and employees as you begin recovery efforts.
A written and published plan is an important step, but a regular testing schedule can be the difference between a smooth transition and one that fails. Over time, job characteristics change. New technology is introduced, customers update their document formats and modify data layouts, and equipment is upgraded. Test your plan regularly to ensure all the components of the plan will still produce the desired results when the time comes.
Nobody likes to do disaster recovery planning. It’s not very interesting work, and it’s easy to put off. Well, all that boring planning work you avoided will be offset by plenty of drama and excitement should an event occur, and you find you didn’t plan adequately. While you are scrambling around trying to start producing mail again, the lifeblood of your organization, revenue, has ceased to flow. A lengthy recovery caused by an ineffective DR plan can put your organization in serious financial peril.
Make it a priority to crack open your old DR plan and compare the document to current requirements. If it falls short, take steps now to update your strategy. Add to your definitions of a disaster to include conditions that were never considered just a few years ago. Make your company one of those who heroically handles the difficulties of severe events that disrupt production and keeps the mail moving for your customers.
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.
This article originally appeared in the November/December, 2022 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.