Barcode Verification: Protect Important Partnerships

We have all heard a legion of tales about the importance of barcode verification. Many of the stories follow a similar path: verify and prevent problems—end of story. But in the real world that is not always the end of the story—it often is more interesting than that. Here is one such scenario.

XYZ Labels LLC (not the actual company name) did business with a healthcare device manufacturer for many years. The barcoded labels were used on a packaging line. The label printer enjoyed a reputation as a quality shop and had a rude awakening with a batch of bad barcodes which they replaced at great expense. The seeds of loss, financial, reputational and self confidence, sprouted a new crop of self-examination and diligence around quality assurance, and the plant manager  led the charge by buying verifiers for each press and training each press operator how to use them. Nothing looked any different from the outside, but over time, management at XYZ Labels LLC noticed that barcode quality was a fluid thing, and the verifiers had given them eyeballs with which they could see when quality was approaching a problem, giving them a heads-up to make adjustments and get back on track. Their self-confidence was renewed and the program was embraced and formalized into a company-wide policy and procedures document.

Then it happened: another disaster. The owner’s phone rang; an unhappy customer told him their barcodes were failing. As his stomach knotted his heart sank: how could this have happened? The plant manager was called to the office; the mood in the plant intensified. The documentation was brought out and the procedures were re-examined. Where were the holes? What did they miss? Here is where the story really gets interesting.

They couldn’t find any problems with the job documents or the procedures. Unless somebody was lying—a possibility nobody wanted to even think about—they couldn’t account for the complaint. The procedures had been followed, the verifier re-calibrations were all up-to-date; everything seemed to be working fine. The sales rep was ordered to contact the customer and ask them to send back samples. It was an awkward, contrite conversation. There was a lot on the line and she had only questions, no answers yet.

The overnight air express packaged arrived early the next morning. The conference room was ready with a verifier and worried plant manager. The first samples were OK—and the next ones too. Another verifier was brought in. Everything was testing fine and matched the archived verification records. The tension mounted as the owner, plant manager and sales rep began to fear that the verifiers were the culprit—how could all of them fail at once? Somebody opined that it didn’t make sense—and suddenly it dawned on them all. No, it didn’t make sense: call the customer.

The embarrassed label company owner admitted they had not found a cause of the problem, and diplomatically asked about the customer’s scanners: how old were they? Had they been recently serviced, moved or replaced? Had any changes been made recently? The customer’s impatient tone softened: as a matter of fact, the old laser scanners had been acting erratic lately. The hardware vendor had assured them they would last “forever”.  Both sides of the phone conversation breathed a sigh of relief. Apologies were expressed. Life returned to normal.

Stories like this happen all the time. They usually go unreported for reasons I do not completely understand: important lessons are learned and relationships are strengthened. This story illustrates how quality is the best protection in a valuable business partnership.