A root cause approach to email overload

I've just returned from the Lean Enterprise Institute's Lean Transformation Summit where I ran two workshops on applying lean ideas to the individual desktop. I've covered many of those topics in this blog before, but the discussions with the participants got me thinking: maybe my approach is wrong.

For example, I've spilled a lot of electronic ink (fortunately, electrons are cheap) telling you how to manage email. But I'm now wondering whether my advice has merely been addressing the symptoms, and not the actual problem. Which is to say, I'm giving advice on how to handle email once it's hit your inbox. But perhaps I should be focusing more on the root cause of all those emails.

If you're versed in lean, six sigma, or the writings of Peter Drucker and William Edwards Deming, you know that you can't control -- and therefore can't improve -- a process if you can't measure it. And I would argue that we do a terrible job of measuring email. Yes, we know how many messages are in our inboxes, and we have some idea of how many messages we get per day, but that's only a small fraction of the measuring that we should be doing. And it's the least important fraction, too.

If you really want to reduce the time you spend in email and increase the amount of time you spend on the stuff that's really important to you and your organization, you have to understand what's coming at you. And why.

Instead of simply bemoaning the flood of email you get, you should be asking questions like:
- what percentage of my emails are worthless?
- which departments (or people) generate most of my worthless emails?
- what topics show up in most of my worthless emails?
- does the volume of worthless email vary by the day of the week?
- how long does email sit in my inbox?
- why do emails sit in my inbox so long?

Only with this sort of analysis can you begin to attack the root cause of the email problem. Undoubtedly, you'll learn that some of the problem stem from your own habits -- habits that people like Merlin Mann, Matt Cornell, David Allen, and countless others (including I) have written about ad nauseum. But you're liable to find that there are also systemic causes to the email deluge. And in keeping with lean thinking, it makes far more sense to build better levees than to spend time bailing water.

This same approach can help you analyze why so many of your productive work hours are spent in meetings that add so little value. I've yet to meet a person who isn't frustrated by the amount of time spent in meetings, and yet no one seems to conduct a thorough measurement of this blight.

Why not ask explore some of the following questions?
- how often do meetings start and end on time?
- how focused are meetings?
- how often do meetings end without resolution?
- what are the most common goals of meetings?
- are meetings the best way of accomplishing those goals?
- can the company set standards around meetings -- standard times, standard days, standard formats -- to accomplish those goals?

I think it's worth taking a broader view of any organizational/personal productivity issue and exploring it in the context of the processes in which you operate. Sure, your habits may be part of the problem. But there's likely a systems issue that exacerbates your own inefficient work habits.

I plan on exploring these ideas more deeply in future blog posts, but for now, let's leave it at this: start asking questions about why work doesn't flow more smoothly. Try to find the root cause of the problem. You may be surprised at where the investigation leads you.

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