Going to the email gemba.


One of the core principles of lean is the notion of going to the gemba -- the place where the actual work is being done, so that you can see for yourself what the situation really is. This principle is particularly powerful when you're trying to solve problems. Why discuss a manufacturing failure while sitting in a conference room when you could go to the actual production line and watch the process? What's the sense in developing plans to spur sales of a new running shoe without first actually hanging out at the store and watching customers try it on? I thought about this principle when I read this article by Michael Schrage: To Improve Performance, Audit Your Employees' Emails. Schrage argues that

Because the rhythm and rhetoric of effective email exchange is a critical success factor in business performance, mismanagement of email may in fact be a symptom of other weaknesses in your organization.

Okay, okay, I know the title of the article sounds (more than) a bit Big Brother-ish. But Schrage isn't advocating that you actually monitor all the messages they read and write. That's insane. Rather, he suggests that you should make email an intrinsic part of performance reviews.

Ask people to present three sets of correspondence that demonstrate how well they've used the medium to manage successful outcomes. In other words, have them select examples illustrating their own email "best practices" for results. You, and they, will find this review and prioritization process revealing.

When you think about it, the concept actually makes sense. It's kind of like going to the "email gemba." It gives you a chance to deal with concrete communication examples, rather than vague abstractions, like, "Your direct reports say that your feedback and suggestions are confusing." Examining these self-selected emails may also reveal that the employee does a poor job of analysis, or excels at building teamwork.

To be sure, this tool is as compromised as any performance review by the delay between writing the email and the date you actually review it. But as a tool for seeing the actual work and helping to spur self-reflection and improvement, it's actually a pretty good idea.

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