by Mike Chiricuzio Blue Moon Solutions, Inc. (Dr. Printing) July 6, 2004 -- The importance of accuracy and the costs associated with a Variable Data Printing (VDP) project make finishing more critical than ever before. In this column we'll review the activities and contrast finishing VDP and litho jobs. Make a Plan, Stan. Much of what is involved in successful production of VDP projects is logic, good work habits and common sense. Just as in any aspect of business, a good plan creates the opportunity for an improved level of success. VDP projects are no different--it's just that there are considerations that have to be made for the unique processes and also the necessity for 100% accuracy and completion. This is a target that we have not typically had to adhere to in the past. Too often, it is our normal habit to throw processes/people/dollars/difficulty at a problem in an effort to reduce the chance of failure, but in the very process of doing so we complicate the process, lessen the understanding and actually increase the chance that someone will miss a step, misunderstand, or not buy into the activities, leading to less than expected performance. You Gotta Finish! There are many mechanical processes that may come into play with a VDP job, just as with any printed documents. The complexity of VDP documents is no more or less, except for the fact that you must have 100% accuracy in completion. Think about it: No omissions, no defects, with each document produced. To put this into perspective, consider that one of the most successful and well-run companies in the world is FedEx. Everyday, they deliver more than 3.3 million packages. Their goal is 100% on-time delivery. You probably have all experienced cases where this did not happen for one reason or another, but in general their record is very good. I was once told that their on-time delivery percentage was over 97%. This may or may not be accurate. If it is, that means that everyday, FedEx has almost 100,000 angry clients! Even if they achieve 99%, they still have 33,000 angry, disappointed customers everyday or more than 8.5 MILLION failures each year. And of course, the negative experiences are much more memorable to the client than the positive ones. ...And you have to do better than FedEx. Can you handle it? Coating/Varnish/Laminating Keeping the number of separate finishing operations to a minimum lessens the opportunity for waste and/or mishandling of documents, but proper use of finishing treatments can enhance the look and feel of the document, as well as protecting it in situations where it will experience significant exposure to rough treatment, such as the Post Office! Which process you select will largely depend upon the needs of the project combined with your in-house abilities and/or locally available processes that fit the budget of the client. Perf/Score/Die-Cut/Trim/Fold/Seal/Stuff As with coating and laminating, the variety of different finishing processes are many, varied, and to a greater or lesser extent, necessary. Planning, testing, communicating, tracking-- It's all part of the game. Project Specific Activities Common Sense and Logic, nothing more. The communication and examination of these 'nuts and bolts' items should be commonplace in the industry, although not always true. These standard elements are no less important, in fact, it is the 'routine' issue that often can cripple a well made plan. This is the equivalent of 'measure twice, and cut once.' There are so many possible ways for Variable Data Printing projects to go south, and any one of them can be the difference between success and failure for the project, the client, and, ultimately, for you. Expenses can be spared in some processes involved in projects like this, but planning is never one of those areas. Take or find the time to work the bugs out ahead of time Data Files and Testing The only nightmare worse than the possibility of waste/spoilage or other production issues causing incomplete fulfillment is BAD DATA. There is a belief--not entirely unfounded--that all data is bad. The client's data files seem to always have issues, and it falls to you to find the problems, fix them, communicate them, and hopefully, charge for this service. As much as possible, you need the right tools to automate the data testing/correction process, regarding postal requirements, logic and assumptions, naming conventions of graphic and test files, etc. Then, you need a way to get client approval of the final data. If you don't, you buy the problems, and risk your client's business as well as your own. Finally, don't be afraid to help the client in testing the entire concept. The data, the offer, the graphics, the mailability--all aspects. Remembering that what the client is really buying from you is a solution to their problem: More Business or More Margin or Higher Responses or whatever their goal may be. Test markets exist for a reason, and it is a relatively simple matter to help them prove their and your theories, allowing you both the opportunity to alter/modify/improve the program based on measured, repeatable results. Quality Control Finding the Flaws. The never-ending issue for those who put ink on paper is how good is good enough? The market has always determined what is and what is not acceptable quality. VDP focuses the attention of the recipient more directly on the printed document, and this additional scrutiny increases the need for preventing use of below-tolerance pieces. As much as possible, you don't want to have to touch every sheet, every piece. But, you do what you have to do to keep your client and/or their clients from becoming Inspectors General. That's a fast track to saying goodbye to your hard-earned project. Codes/Barcodes/Batches/Tracking Don't forget this possibility. Whether manual or automated, the checks and approvals of the documents must be done to ensure client satisfaction. Coding and automating the operation leads to the best possible documentation of the entire process, and it is the documentation that clients are going to demand more and more to ensure that they are getting the best possible opportunity for results. To the extent possible, these processes should be automated, with the use of barcodes, scanners, accurate counting procedures, and documentation. Can you overdo it when it comes to quality control? Perhaps. But better to err on the side of accuracy, right? As for the results of VDP-- well, that's a whole 'nother article now, isn't it? Project Meetings - Advance Nobody likes meetings. There is a young lady with whom I have worked for years who always came to any meeting with her special coffee mug that said, simply: "I Hate Meetings". And she did-- for good reason. They can often be time-consuming, non-productive sessions that actually lessen the understanding, agreement and buy-in of the attendees. This same person had a favorite saying: "Be Brief, Be Bright, and Be Gone". Good advice for any meeting. The advance meeting is where the planning starts to payoff, but only if the right people with the right attitude spend the right amount of time getting the project on track and off to a good start. Begin with an agenda and a checklist of the task at hand, with all available data and specifications, schedules, etc., as well as any pricing/costing information. Brainstorm where appropriate, gathering the opinions and ideas of all players in the process, constantly looking for an improvement that does not add complexity or time. Project Meetings - During The how and when of meetings for VDP programs is unique in every situation, depending on complexity, team strength, familiarity, etc. Whether it's once a month or twice a day, the key is to find the appropriate time/format/attendees and to make the most of the time. Remember, meetings can cost you hundreds of dollars per hour and lost production time, but the alternative can cost you thousands of dollars, or projects, or clients, or your reputation. Remember, the only thing that matters is RESULTS. Project Meetings - After Affectionately referred to as the Post Mortem meeting, it hopefully serves to not discuss the death of the patient but the successes of the project. Open, honest analysis of what worked well and what didn't leads to opportunity for improved performance the next time, or improved team performance for the next client. Mistakes, problems and issues will occur, and like everything else, it's how a team performs when faced with a problem that really defines their strength and ability to learn and grow. Finally, Remember Murphy's Law: "If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those can result in catastrophe, then someone will do it." This is not a negative concept, although largely perceived as such. It's merely an accurate observation of the fact that if the opportunity for a problem exists, eventually it will occur. Make sure that you've done everything possible to remove the possibilities, but be prepared for what you WILL DO when things go wrong, as they surely will. Bad stuff does, in fact, happen. How are you going to minimize the problems, catch the glitches, and improve for the next round? That's the key. Good luck!