Working in today's mailing facility is much like shooting the rapids in a fast-moving river both exciting and risky at the same time. And like rafting and the mailing industry, it is all about how it flows. Coming from a diverse manufacturing background, I have found that a commonality exists for all manufacturing, regardless of the product. The commonality is that manufacturing is fluid by nature and how fluids behave is exactly how production behaves. Four years ago, when I entered the mailing industry, I was able to apply fluid dynamics to help improve workflow and output. What I learned was that while waiting for changes to take effect, sometimes a moment of lucidity erupts.


The basic principles that I have applied with success are:

            1. Be patient

            2. Follow the product from start to finish

            3. Know the environment (people, equipment, building and seasons)

            4. Implement changes one at a time

            5. Be consistent in change   

            6. Use all available assets

            7. Accept blame, give praise ·


When I walked into a mail center four years ago, I had absolutely no experience in mailing. But my boss wanted a new set of eyes with manufacturing and leadership experience to take this organization to the next level. When I walked through the doors, there were four distinct and somewhat separate departments. Each department did its own thing and had little to do with the other areas. Data and printing did its own thing with absolutely no idea if what they did affected another area. The mail center stuffed envelopes with whatever printing gave them. And lock box just processed whatever was received. Inventory control was best guess. Things worked mail was sent out, quality errors were cyclical and predicable. And specialists abounded, incapable of doing anything other than their specialty. In a fluid environment, there are no specialists... just capable people able to better serve the customer.


Be Patient

Patience, the first principle in fluid dynamics, is crucial in order for your business to survive. Without taking time to study the symbiotic relationships in mailing, any changes could be disastrous. There are many exciting and brilliant new ideas to solve your production woes. However, you will not have a lasting effect unless you have taken the time to understand the flow. Lasting changes to the flow take time, and with fewer dollars available to implement change, you want to do it right the first time. Ask questions.


Note the Flow

Where does your work start? Does it start at the vendor preprinting your forms? Or at the server with your data imports? This is where the rapids begin. Take note of where the turbulence begins and where the currents move.


Know the Environment

What I mean here is that you physically perform the task so that you know what it takes to perform that task. You would be amazed at how some supposedly simple tasks have been made quite complicated over time.


Write up job instruction cards for each task, just like making a map of the river. Physically walking a project through the system start to finish is enlightening. You will learn where every rock is located and what type of turbulence or current it creates. Note: not all rocks in the rapids are a bad thing; you just have to determine what rocks need to be moved for a less hazardous experience. The work environment significantly impacts any system. You can't always change the environment so you learn how to deal with it.


In a mail center, the seasons change, and for us in the mailing industry, the floods come about the holidays. Plan your flow, accounting for the seasonal changes so that you are able to meet your customers' needs without heroics. There are many tried and true methodologies to contain the flood waters. Consider this when planning the flow. Environmental influences are not always predicable; however, they are consistent.


Small Steps

When altering the flow in any stream, careful consideration must be made as to what happens in other parts of the stream. Too much back pressure and floods occur upstream too much velocity can cause undesirable erosion downstream. When change is needed, change only one parameter at a time. When changes are made one at a time they can be evaluated more thoroughly. It is more cost-effective, and the impact of failure is minimized when it can be corrected readily. Small changes as part of a larger plan will be accepted more readily than massive sweeping changes.


Be Consistent When You Change

Always start at the beginning even when you know there is something in the middle that needs attention. Follow methodologies that work and do not allow old habits to surface. If you cannot alter a rock to improve the flow, you may just have to remove it. Once the change is made, and it works, update your process instructions to reflect it. Keep records of why the change was made and what problems were alleviated. Consistently allow for change, consistently enforce the change and consistently evaluate the change.


Use What's There

Use all assets available. Something as simple as a branch floating downstream could serve as a hammer, a pry bar, a prop, even as firewood to warm you up after getting wet. When using assets available, be creative; some things designed for a single purpose may have multiple functions. Allow your people to use creativity as long as it is focused and in line with your plan. Use your environment to your advantage sometimes, though, you can't change it significantly, so just tweak it. Develop the assets available so that seasonal fluctuation can be dealt with just like a dam controls the flow in a river. It is usually your human assets that know best how to control the flow. Trust them to do it and give them the tools to do it.


Spread the Wealth

Accept the blame when there is a failure and you are responsible for all that your people do or do not do. And understand that mistakes are a valuable part of the process since they give you a clear idea where the rocks are. Never worry about giving out the credit for success. The right people will always know who was the driving force. Giving credit will pay dividends that you can't imagine. When it comes to mailing, study the flow so when you shoot the rapids, both you and your boat reach the smooth waters in one piece.


Patrick Wanzeck is Plant Manager at US Billing, a Division of Xentel America Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Contact Pat at