I've read several stories recently that made me wince. These are accounts of printing or mailing errors that hit the news and often made the document services people sound incompetent. That's too bad. The vast majority of the people in the document business I've met over the years are conscientious, dedicated individuals. The companies in the reports just got caught up in a rare set of circumstances that had undesirable results.

In every single case, a quality control step was obviously skipped. These embarrassing and sometimes expensive blunders could have been avoided.

It's easy to understand why preventative measures get omitted. Sometimes we get so used to things working out perfectly that we gloss over the very procedures that were designed to alert us to the unexpected. Or we're in a hurry to meet deadlines and rush the job out the door to make the mailing cutoff time.

But you never know when a mistake may creep into the job. You really can't afford to relax the quality controls on any of them.

As document jobs become more complex, automated systems to control quality and catch errors are probably warranted. But until shops upgrade the gear on the floor, there are still measures they can take with the resources they have available today.

Here are a few procedures you might want to reinforce in your own shop before disaster strikes!

  1. Do thorough visual inspections of the final output. Carefully review all the documents you print, including graphics and static portions of the pages. Don't forget to compare the front and back sides. Several of the errors I saw were the result of mismatched fronts and backs.
  2. Compare original raw data to final printed output. This is especially important in cases where multiple data sources are merged on the final document. I noticed a couple of instances where the document services provider apparently extracted the name and address data to do postal processing and then failed to accurately connect the address information back with the original data.
  3. Make sure all the address data (and nothing else) shows through envelope windows. Problems often happen with six- to seven-line address blocks and with multiple page documents that are folded and move up or down in the window. I recommend you format documents to keep any confidential information like account numbers or social security numbers far away from the address block.
  4. If something unusual occurs, take the time to do a thorough inspection of the affected batch. Many of the mistakes that were reported were tracked back to jams or printer job conflicts. Problems with poor-running materials can also cause errors during the inserting process so open up some envelopes to make sure all the pieces are in sync.
  5. Avoid manual interventions. In smaller shops it is a common practice to break jobs up into small batches. It's pretty easy to duplicate a batch or miss one altogether if you split the job into small parts. There was even one reported case where operators manufactured duplex-printed documents by printing the front, turning the paper over, and running it through again to print the back. There were no controls that enforced document integrity, and mistakes were made.
  6. Any change in vendors or job mix should prompt a total review of the job. I read two accounts where processing errors occurred, probably because of miscommunication, when a new shop took over the job. There was also one story where some of the materials had a glaring error that was missed during reviews by the envelope supplier, the document processing center, and the client. They were all looking for details like misspellings and missed the obvious mistake!

We can't prevent errors from happening - even with the most sophisticated technology on the market. But the vast majority of mistakes can be caught before they go out in the mail. The key is setting up the quality controls and then performing them consistently on every job.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, a consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, raise quality, and lower costs in their document operations. For more information visit www.printmailconsultants.com or email Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com.