(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.
Matt Brezina says
I completely agree with the bullets you laid out at the bottom of your post. We attempt to implement those very same practices within Xobni (the company).
Xobni Insight isn’t designed to reduce the number of emails you receive, it is designed to let you get through the emails you receive faster. With lightning fast search, threaded conversations, quick attachment views and instant contact info discovery Xobni makes the email experience better for someone who gets 20 emails a day or someone who gets 200.
I’m glad there are people working on both the technological side and the behavioral side of email management. It is obviously a large pain point for millions of people.
Dan Markovitz says
Good point. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply that your product is a waste; it isn’t. In conjunction with the behavioral tools that we both mentioned, it’s a powerful aid for information management. After all, Toyota *does* deploy new technology. . . once they’ve got the people and the process problems figured out.
Lou English says
I have done lots of lean projects with office businesses and email management is always one of the top issues/opportunities raise by the participants. I have found the way an organization manages its email is a way it manages its business.
Ask people why they feel a need to put all those people on their cc lists or bcc lists. It could be CYA fear, it could be the lack of personal recognition. it could be trying to avoid accountability. It could be a way to deal with an unresponsive leadership.
Below is a list of guidelines I give management to begin solving the “email problem” since it starts with them.
Email Protocol (Draft)
Assumptions and Expectations:
•Do not send an unsolicited email unless it requires a specific decision or action. If a decision is required, send all accompanying data and background so a follow-up request to get it.
•Do not include me on a CC listing if you have sent the message to someone who reports directly to me. I expect my staff to manage their responsibilities and then make the decision if I need to be further informed.
•Do not send “information only” or “just in case” memos.
•If you originate an email message or memo you are expected to keep the original on file for future reference.
•If you send an email assume it has been received. There is no need to send follow-up inquiries to insure it has been received.
•Refrain from use of the “Reply to All”
Use of “Out of Office Assistant”
•If you will be out of the office for an entire day or longer, turn on your Out of Office assistant with a message indicating when you will return and who can be contacted on your behalf.
•If you will be out for an extended period of time, consider having your email forwarded to a proxy
•Attached files should be limited in number and in total size. Consider placing a file on a common drive location and then provide a “Shortcut link” or detailed
Lou English PhD.