(Note: this is a copy of a post I just put up on my own blog. For more goodies on the lean approach to managing email and information, and how to create individual lean work habits, go here.)
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Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article, Email’s Friendly Fire (available for free here), shows just how wide is the gulf between lean thinking and conventional thinking.
the sobering (frightening?) data: last year, the average corporate
email user received 126 messages a day, a 55% increase from 2003.
Translating that number into your most valuable commodity — time —
workers are now spending 26% of their day managing email, a number
expected to hit 41% by 2009. (All figures from the Radicati Group.) And while your mileage may vary, you’re probably not too far off these numbers.
The problem isn’t really spam, either:
overload is now considered a much bigger workplace problem than
traditional email spam. Inboxes are bulging today partly because of
what some are calling "colleague spam" — that is, too many people are
indiscriminately hitting the "reply to all" button or copying too many
people on trivial messages, like inviting 100 colleagues to partake of
brownies in the kitchen. A good chunk of today’s emails are also coming
from brand new sources, like social- and business-networking sites like
Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp., or text messages forwarded from
Naturally, when there’s a problem like this,
there’s always someone ready to take venture capital and create a
technological solution. And sure enough, one of the companies
mentioned, Xobni, has a product that places a set of features on top of
a customer’s email inbox, such as "profiles" of online contacts
complete with photos, and quick links to set up appointments.
is that going to solve the problem? Are you really going to have fewer
messages or spend less time processing email if you have a photo of the
Look, I’m sure there’s more to Xobni than that, but I
still question the blind faith in a technological solution. And that’s
where we come to lean thinking.
Toyota is legendary for its
production efficiency. The company is also legendary for being slow to
introduce new technology. Management has always felt that it’s
pointless to spend money on shiny new hardware, software, and equipment
when the underlying process is broken: first get the process right, and
then figure out whether it makes sense to invest in new technology.
(This is true for both factories and offices.) Detroit automakers
learned this lesson the hard way, when after investing billions in
robots and the highest-tech plants in the 1980s and 90s, they found
that their quality still couldn’t match Toyota’s standard.
when a company develops a program that promises to make email
management in Outlook easier, I’m skeptical. Because the greatest
technology in the world is worthless if the underlying process is
broken. And it is.
The real reason why workers are pissing
away their days in their inbox is that most of the mail is worthless
crap. In conjunction with yesterday’s article, the WSJ did a reader’s
poll in which 79% of responders said that less than half their emails are valuable.
You want to talk about muda? Think
about the colossal waste of time these numbers represents.
Conservatively speaking, people are spending at least 13% of their days
wading through electronic garbage. And the number is
probably a lot higher than that.
The real solution to the
explosion of email isn’t a new Outlook add-in that makes sorting,
filing, or finding email easier, any more than the solution to your
weight problem is buying a bigger pair of pants.
solution — the lean solution — is to reduce the volume of email that
you’re generating and receiving in the first place.
I’m not a Luddite.
I don’t think that we should go back to the Pony Express to handle all
our communication. Email is an amazingly powerful tool that can make
business easier and more productive. (Although, in the words of Matt Cornell, it should be treated like a chainsaw: powerful but dangerous.) And it’s not going away anytime soon.
if you don’t begin to reduce the volume of email you deal with and
actually start doing your job, by 2009 you’re going to become one of
those folks who spend 41% of your day dealing with email. And that
doesn’t sound like fun, unless you really enjoy working at home while
your family stares like Sigourney Weaver in Alien.
attorney I know was just told by Alcoa, his client, that they no longer
want to communicate with him via email. Apparently, Alcoa’s in-house
attorneys and accountants are so swamped by email that they can’t deal
with any more. Now they have a conference call twice a week to cover
all the issues. Not coincidentally, they’re getting more done in less
time. Documents are still being sent by email, of course, but the
substantive discussions are done by phone, which is a far more
effective way of communicating.
You may not be ready (or able) to
make such a Draconian change in email policy where you work, but here
are some simple ideas that you can try to manage the flood of email:
you send an email to a group of people, put the recipients in the BCC
field. That prevents them from hitting reply all. (If you want to show
who was on the list, put their names in the body of the email.)
to a daily 10 minute meeting/phone call with your main email
correspondents. Be focused: cover all non-urgent items that you might
otherwise have put in an email. You’ll be amazed at how many emails you
can preempt. And honor that commitment: put it in your calendar so that
you don’t forget.
- Pick up the phone.
- Get off your ass and walk over to the other person. (Speaking of getting lean….)
To paraphrase Kevin Meyer, it doesn’t pay to worship the false god
of the technological solution. Attack the problem at the root, rather
than trying to apply some sort of electronic panacea to a fundamentally
broken system. That’s lean thinking. And it works.