Solve Your Email Woes with Lean, Part 2
This is part two of a two-part piece. Part one can be found here.
By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions, LLC
Now that you have organized your system and set up a plan for email management, you must “Sustain” your method with some discipline. Even if you feel like it is painful to follow your own rules, or still too slow for comfort to process your email, stick with your plan and see it through. Most email management plans will work. They fail because the discipline to follow them fails. After a couple of weeks, if you decide that your system or plan needs some adjustment, go ahead.
Continuous improvement is a big part of Lean. Just give it a couple of weeks to work before you go adjusting it or you’ll never get into a routine. Routine is your best friend.
Now that you have your email system under control, let’s discuss how to make it work for us. The primary objective of Lean, and the best friend to eliminating those painful hours spent processing your email is flow. Always think flow when using and improving your email system. Keep that inventory in your in-box to a minimum. Letting it build up and then processing it in big batches is not flow. I’ll bet you have already realized that it’s painful.
The preferred tool to manage flow with Lean is First-In-First-Out (FIFO). FIFO is great when everything you are processing is the same. Unfortunately, your emails are all unique. So, instead, I strongly recommend a prioritized to-do list.
When you read an email, before you close it and read another, you add it to your to-do list and give it the appropriate priority. I like sorting according to Important (value-added) and urgent, to Important and not urgent, to urgent and not important, to not either. Clearly the items in the last category are probably waste. This allows you process your actions from emails in a proper order and prevents you from making someone else wait, and it prevents defects in the form of late or missed opportunities.
Unless you must keep the email for a direct reply or because you need details or instructions, delete it once you have put the action on the to-do list. Having the action or information in both places is just duplicate inventory. With your to-do list, again consider visual aids to help you distinguish priorities. Also, you must set limits again.
Workload leveling and cycle time or TAKT time are important Lean concepts with regard to managing flow. For the sake of your email and to-do list, just set a limit for the amount of time you believe you can typically invest in any given week to process your action items. This should be the time you have that doesn’t include recurring meetings, standard duties, and general noise. I usually set my own around 20 hours per work week.
When you add an action to your to-do list, estimate the time it will take to get it done properly. When your total for the week starts to exceed your capacity, you must begin managing your future crisis. Tell someone something won’t get done if you have to, but be proactive.
Your to-do list is your best tool for managing your flow. Flow is the key to managing your email. Once an email message is addressed delete it. Archive it if you must.
Routine is the key to successful discipline and flow. Get into a habit of processing your email in-box and your to-do list regularly throughout the day. Make standard times to review and process your email and stick to them.
I find that first thing in the morning my mind isn’t really in my work yet. Reviewing my email right away helps get me focused and it is also a time when I am afforded a little attention because others are doing the same or getting coffee, etc. I like the lunch hour for the same reason and I’ll try to not leave the day without cleaning up my email inbox. Those few minutes we spend waiting for meetings to start are also a good time to read and prioritize our action items, but not to work them.
So, with the above paragraphs we have outlined a method and a discipline for staying ahead of our email, based on Lean principles. Naturally you will need to do some experimenting and customizing to build that system and method that works best for you. Let me give you just a few more Lean ideas to think about as you do.
In addition to treating your email like inventory, we must think about our emails to others as work or product. This means we must prevent defects. Defects can be late responses, unclear responses, or emails to the wrong person, just to name some common ones. Your to-do list should help with the timing. Relaxing to process your emails from a genuine keyboard instead of your smart phone can help with defects and mistaken recipients.
To deal with unclear emails I have a belief to share with you. Email is not an effective form of communication. If you have an idea to communicate, or if you need to explain something, propose something, or otherwise convince your recipient of something, use the phone or walk over to their workspace. Don’t email.
Email should only be used to transmit or deliver data, or provide short requests or answers. Anything that is likely to cause another email with someone asking questions, arguing, or otherwise mimicking a conversation, should be a conversation, not an email.
If you get an email that belongs in a conversation, pick up the phone and converse, don’t respond in an email unless to set up a time for a meeting or a call. Don’t allow that “defect” to perpetuate. Communicate instead.
Defects are a disease. Anything you send that requires added effort to understand to get to the right person, or arrives too late to be of any value results in time and energy spent accomplishing nothing. Consistently focus on preventing defects and stopping their perpetuation.
The last waste to talk about is Overproduction. This happens a-lot with email. After all, it only takes a second to put our boss’s name on the cc line so he/she knows we responded to a customer, or to add a whole team to the list so that they also get some piece of information buried somewhere in the email. Also there is the cursed “reply all” option.
Sure it may only take you a second to reply to all, or to add a few more folks to the message. But, how much of their time and energy goes into now managing that additional inventory in their own in-box? What have you just done? Was it really worth the pain caused?
Be very, very judicious with your selection of recipients to your emails. In the greater scheme of things, it probably wastes less time and creates fewer misunderstandings (defects) if you write an email with the specific information your recipients need instead of copying them on your emails to others.
When other people send you their overproduction, communicate with them that you would prefer that they should not do that. Tell them to send you an instant message to say they are done with a task instead of copying you on the delivery or response. Train them to use the phone by calling them and asking, “What is this email you sent me all about?” Just stop the cycle.
That covers all six wastes that I listed above. As I sum this up, it’s going to appear really simple. Maybe it is, but then, most Lean solutions are. I will warn you that it will take some careful consideration, some practice, and some discipline to follow the thoughts above and get your email pains to go away, but that is also typical of most Lean solutions.
So let’s sum up. The goal is to eliminate waste activity in our processing of email and to achieve some flow. Begin by using the 5S technique to clean up your current mess. It is especially important to set limits in your email system and in your to-do list so you can manage your workload and proactively manage the phenomenon of more work than time and energy.
Use visual aids and triggers to minimize the effort to quickly manage your information (motion) and prevent build-up in your inventory or over-processing. Constantly focus on eliminating defects and overproduction. Establish a routine and stick to it.
I did this for myself a few years ago when I decided to apply some of my training to my own e-mail pain. It was surprisingly simple to solve, but it did take some effort and re-training of myself. Lean is powerful and very versatile. Give it a try and put an end to your own email suffering.
Stay wise, friends.