While it is obvious that for a business to remain competitive they must be adept at efficiently managing their resources (people, materials, machines, etc.), most of the focus on designing resource management and production software has been to meet the direct needs of traditional manufacturing concerns.  Thus, many of these systems build upon the concept of a standard bill-of-material (BOM) that is planned, scheduled and resulting lower-level components, purchased, received and tracked according to a master schedule.


However, for the mailing industry, there really is no BOM, nor is there much in the way of inventory.  Each job is a little different, and the fundamental unit for scheduling and tracking is the routing which areas or work-centers the job needs to go through, in what order and how much time (machines and labor) is required at each step?


For example, in a simple case, if an operation had one work-center to schedule, you wouldn't need any system at all. You would merely add in time for each job until it spilled over into the next day.  A scheduling rule known as Johnson's Rule states: by scheduling the jobs with the smallest processing time first, you will have the best throughput rate and average cycle time (figure 1).


The reality of most mailing center operations prohibits applying such a simple scheduling model.  With several work-centers (inserting operations, address file preparation, addressing operations, folding, parcel shipping, metering, incoming mail sort, internal mail distribution, etc.) and a mix of labor and machines working in parallel, combined with many jobs being estimated and many jobs being scheduled, each with different routing and process times, it becomes nearly impossible to plan and schedule efficiently without some computer assistance.


Furthermore, there is a phenomenon called Covariance that explains why most of the time, things just can't get done in the time you originally estimated.  This theorem states that in a sequence of events, any deviations that can occur will, and they will add up to the maximum possible delay.  Workers are late, material can't be found, machines are not calibrated, etc.  At times, things seem to come to a halt without explanation.


The question is, what options are there for the mailing industry to work towards some of the promised benefits of a production type of software? The rest of this article addresses that very thing, summarizing the potential benefits, risks and requirements of implementing a production type software system.


Potential benefits of production system

Just some of the benefits of a successful system include:

  •            Improved customer service through the ability to estimate, track and deliver jobs on time.

  •            A direct revenue increase in the ability to run more jobs through in less time.  Having a formal scheduling system to identify exactly what resources (labor, machines) are needed where and when, you will be able to achieve maximum throughput.  The more jobs that can be run in the same amount of time with the same resources, obviously yields a direct increase in revenue.

  •            Improved operational efficiency and direct cost savings by both planning and scheduling labor to minimize overtime fluctuations and combining material purchases for volume discounts, minimizing the inventory carrying costs, etc.


    Getting started

    For operations interested in pursuing these benefits, it is crucial they understand the level of commitment necessary to achieve reasonable success. All too often, the pursuit of these benefits is undertaken when there is crisis, too many late jobs, losing customers, uncompetitive bids, soaring overhead costs, etc. 


    There will be a series of reality checks on where the operation is now, where you want to go and if you have what it takes to get there. For example, if you implement a system that gives you a realistic schedule and the boss can continually interrupt the process to rush a special order through for a close with key customers, then you better plan for interruptions and make sure your system can handle a mix of firm, standard jobs as well as a percentage of rush jobs. As another example, you will need some method of gathering, estimating and verifying standard process times. If you time the fastest worker at their height of efficiency, you can't really expect an accurate schedule.


    A practical, working and realistic understanding of how jobs are processed and the general flow of activity is the first step in improving where you are. This information usually exists in some form, if only in the manager's head to start with. It is a good idea to establish an agreement and document your processes with flow charts, procedures, time standards, etc. If you haven't done this, you will find immediate opportunities for improving your efficiencies during this phase. 


    Implementation options matrix

    Now, you are ready to investigate various system approaches. You have basically three options with various costs and risks as explained below. 



    Be sure to choose a system that offers a no-obligation trial period where you can enter in your own data and see how it works for you. Choose a vendor willing to work with you, helping you set it up, enter your data and model your facility.  Don't make a decision based on a glossy brochure and fancy dog-and-pony show. Make a decision on the actual performance of the software with a sample of your actual operational data, before you cut the check.


    The bottom line is, you no longer can just muddle through each day hoping production will stay on pace. You must have an organized, systematic method of completing the increasing tasks necessary to keep your mail center competitive. Taking advantage of these new production technologies will save time, money and headaches while avoiding those embarrassing "excuse" calls to customers.


    Jim Convis is president of User Solutions, Inc.  For additional information on this article or production software, contact him at 248-486-1934, jc@usersolutions.com or www.usersolutions.com.

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