Immutable laws of nature.


We accept certain facts as immutable laws of nature: hydrogen has a molecular weight of one. E=MC2. The Wall Street Journal will complain about the Obama stimulus package. Britney Spears will do something to land herself on the cover of People. The volume of email you get each year will inexorably increase.

I'm struck by the fatalism in this last assumption. There's a whiff of resignation, a kind of tragic foreknowledge that next year will indeed suck more than this year, at least in terms of email. (That is, unless you actually enjoy being inundated by email, because it makes you feel important. In which case skip the rest of this post and send an email to the company-wide distribution list asking for feedback on the firm's mission statement.)

But why? Why do we assume that there's no stemming the tide? Rather than trying to solve the underlying problem (and virtually everyone acknowledges that email glut is a problem), we look for technological silver bullets like Xobni or GTD Outlook add-ins, or we resign ourselves to declaring email bankruptcy. We never try to understand the root cause of the issue, and as a result, all the steps we take are nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And that's a losing battle, particularly as the types of icebergs (text messages, IM, Twitter, etc.) continue to multiply. Wouldn't it be better to just chart a better course and avoid the icebergs entirely?

I chose that metaphor deliberately. Changing corporate communication culture is probably about as easy navigating the (pre-global warming) North Sea in winter. But reducing inventory levels, shortening assembly lines, lowering cost while improving quality -- hell, running a profitable apparel company with US manufacturing -- also seemed impossible at one time. But through the relentless application of lean tools, and an unwillingness to accept the status quo, all of those things have come to pass at the companies that have embraced lean.

Lean is all about solving problems that keep us from creating customer value. So why not commit to a systemic solution to your email problem?

I suspect that the commitment is lacking in part because it's difficult to quantify that waste. Unlike excessive work in process inventory or the finished goods defect rate, time wasted on email is tough to measure. That makes it seem like less of a "real" problem. But when you think about the opportunity cost of that time and attention -- I mean, what kind of value could you create in that time? -- you realize that it's real and it's significant. As Nathan Zeldes puts it,

Better solutions to major problems that may be hobbling an organization’s performance toward its goals are left undiscovered. The engineer who could have the “Aha!” insight leading to the next major product innovation is trying to find 30 minutes to think about it, and failing. The supervisor who could double a fabrication line’s efficiency can’t because they are nearly brain dead from staying up until one AM working on e–mail. Across the industry, knowledge workers and managers are thinking less, inventing less, producing less, succeeding less.

Nielsen has taken a first step by disabling the Reply All button on their copy of Outlook. They've apparently determined that one of the root causes of their email plague is stupid cc: emails.  However, I'm sure there are more countermeasures to take as well.

As I've mentioned before, I'm working with some companies to see if we can figure out how to attack the root cause of the problem. In true A3 fashion, we'll begin by trying to understand what the real problem is at each firm, assessing the real cost to each company, and we'll go from there. It's not going to be an easy task, nor will there be a simple solution. But I think we'll be able to make a significant improvement. After all, increasing email is not a law of nature.

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