It seems mail center managers are always striving for increased mail inserting productivity. This is especially true when companies consolidate multiple sites or eliminate shifts to lower costs in the face of reduced mail volumes.

When I worked for an organization selling mail handling equipment our response to that situation was often a suggestion for a new, faster machine - or at least some upgraded parts. We were a sales organization. The company was in business to manufacture and sell gear to mail centers. It was a perfectly reasonable and expected solution.

As an independent consultant my advice to clients is to thoroughly evaluate their production workflow before investing in new gear. Faster equipment is still sometimes the right move, but I am a big believer in finding ways to work with what a client already owns before recommending they start spending money on something new.

The keys to finishing more envelopes per day are often right there in the mail center, though they are not always obvious.

When looking for productivity improvements in mail finishing I always start with an assessment of idle time. Productivity is zero if the inserting machines aren't running. The pieces per hour ratings don't really matter then. Finding out about idle time takes some effort. There are dozens of different reasons causing production interruptions - and just as many solutions!

A good place to begin is tracking the number of hours per day equipment is actually producing mail. Then start digging into when and why the machines are inactive. Is there a disparity according to the kind of job? Does the machine operator make a difference? Are productivity levels consistently higher on one shift than another? Facilities lacking ADF-type production data may have to gather this information by observation, but it isn't a difficult task. The results can be surprising.

Here are a few situations resulting in productivity loss. Mail centers seeking to increase their daily volume of finished mail pieces may discover opportunities like these in their own operation.

1. Job changeover - If idle time between jobs is taking a bite out of production, look for ways to shorten those time-consuming processes. That might include tactics such as automating balancing procedures or reallocating jobs among available equipment. Also seek opportunities to eliminate some changeovers entirely by combining several small jobs.

2. Material - Outbound envelopes, document paper stock, return envelopes, and inserts can all be sources of missed feeds, double feeds, and jams. An adjustment in the type of material can allow operators to run machines faster, lengthen intervals between jams, and reduce the number of reprints.

3. Inefficient operator duties - The best use of an inserter operator's time is running the machine. It isn't searching the warehouse for envelopes or inserts. It's not flattening cartons and taking them to the recycle dumpster. And it isn't moving cases of material around the production area to make room for the next job they are going to run. A little bit of observation while work is in progress and asking some questions can reveal large blocks of time where the operator is engaged in other activities and no mail is running.

There are many additional strategies for improving the productivity of a mail inserting operation. I've touched on just a few. Every operation has a different mix of jobs, equipment, operators, and requirements. A solution for increased productivity that works for one shop might not apply in another. Individual analysis is required.

Often, the benefits of upgrading to more modern equipment will produce a favorable ROI calculation. There are certainly some good reasons for upgrading inserting equipment such as enhanced tracking and control, or new functionality. But if conditions hampering productivity before installing a new machine are not addressed, they are still going to be present after the equipment swap. Higher throughput promised by faster equipment may not be fully achieved until these items are handled.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, a firm that helps document centers operate efficiently today and prepare for the business challenges of tomorrow. Visit and sign up for Practical Stuff - a free newsletter featuring tips, trends, and commentary of interest to customer communication professionals.