Going to trade shows or getting calls from mailing equipment salespeople can lead mailing operations managers to conclude the answer to all their problems is new equipment. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not.

While upgrading inserting machinery is sometimes the right answer, I have always believed in helping organizations get the most out of gear they already own before spending money on something new. Most times, workflow adjustments or relatively minor engineering upgrades can generate desired productivity requirements.

One of the first things I look for when assessing the productivity of an inserting operation is machine idle time. Any machine, whether it’s a state-of-the-art engineering miracle or well-worn legacy gear, produces zero pieces per hour when it isn’t running. We often focus on identifying conditions that cause machines to halt and recommending remedies as part of productivity related consulting engagements.

Inefficient procedures can gradually creep into operational workflows. An outside observer can often recognize these situations overlooked by the regular crew.

As jobs come and go, or their characteristics change, operations managers don’t always re-evaluate their procedures. A new mix of jobs, SLAs, and mail volumes can suggest beneficial modifications in document design, scheduling, material handling, and more. Changes in how a mail center processes their work can postpone or eliminate capital investments in new hardware.

Here are some areas to investigate when assessing under-performing inserting operations:

Job Change-Over

Electronic delivery has decreased mail volumes, amplifying the impact of idle time between jobs. Even if operators don’t need to make inter-job machine adjustments, time spent on quality control and logging can eat into daily production volumes. Consider automating these processes. Remove existing job change-overs by combining several small jobs. Standardize on a single outbound envelope, upgrade barcodes and cameras to support selective inserting, or add inline print heads to keep machines running longer between stops.

Fold plate adjustments are especially impactful because they usually require testing, adjusting, and re-testing until addresses line up with envelope windows. Use document re-engineering software to reposition address blocks on the source documents. Specify a standard address location across all jobs to end folder adjustments and their associated machine idle times.

Troublesome Material

Sometimes the only way to avoid excessive jams is to slow down the machine. Mail operations may have to request adjustments to job-specific envelopes, inserts, or paper stock to allow the material to run at high speeds. Observation, tracking, and operator interviews can identify jobs where machine operators have taken unusual steps to decrease jams — modifications often unbeknownst to management.

Non-Operating Operators

We’ve been in shops where we see machine operators handling duties that keep them from running their machines full time. They search the warehouse for envelopes or inserts, flatten cartons and take them to the recycle dumpster, and move pallets of material around to make room for the next job. Operator activities away from their work stations can also spawn extra breaks for smoking, snacks, and chit-chat.

Consider re-assigning these tasks. A single support employee can service multiple inserting lines. Machine operators kept in their work areas and concentrating on processing the mail can raise the shop’s daily inserting capacity.

Updated production workflows won’t alleviate functionality deficiencies. Investments in modern technology may be necessary to support the business needs of in-plant or outsource customers. But mail operations managers must address all the conditions hampering productivity to achieve desired results, regardless of the equipment processing the mail.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that evaluates document operations workflows and helps clients make and implement strategic improvement decisions. For more ideas about how to find and fix operational bottlenecks, connect with Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com or follow @PMCmike on Twitter.