Stop using email. (All the time.)
Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about companies that have enforced an email-free day each week. (You can read the article for free here.) As you can imagine, many people in these companies were apoplectic when they heard about the email ban, considering it "a needless obstacle" to getting their work done. And, of course, the simple shock of being separated from their Blackberries and other email tools was not too different from being thrown into a detox clinic.
But here's the interesting thing: most of the people who initially resisted the ban came to support it. The director of product management for U.S. Cellular gradually realized that reading and responding to all the email she was sending was probably a burden to her co-workers. And others in the article comment that human interaction is not only important in business, but actually faciliates it.
Clients have benefited too, says Brion Zaeh, PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services' senior vice president, client relations. His team has gotten better acquainted with co-workers throughout the company. And when a client recently needed a big order sent quickly, his group teamed up with 40 co-workers to work seven days a week until the shipments were out. "If we had just done it the same old way," with heavy reliance on email relationships, he says, "there's no way it would have been successful."
And here's where we come to the link with lean. As a matter of principle, lean eschews (That's your vocabulary word o' the day.) technology for technology's sake. Lean organizations don't want to automate broken processes; they want to fix the process before investing in technology. And it's even better if they can get by without investing in fancy technology solutions. (See any one of Kevin Meyer's excellent posts on this topic at Evolving Excellence.)
Now, I'm not advocating that you eliminate email. It's an amazing application that really can reduce costs, save time, and help you become more productive -- when used wisely. But the reflexive, habitual, nearly neurotic need to read and write email doesn't do that. It actually impedes your ability to do your job well -- as evidenced by the PBD experience above.
Here's a newsflash for you: email is not your job. It's simply a communication device that helps you get your job done, but checking it 30-40 times per hour isn't your work any more than answering the telephone is. (Unless, of course, you're the receptionist. Which you're not.) When your work life is consumed by email, you've become, in Thoreau's words, the tool of your tools.
As I've written many times here, lean emphasizes the elimination of all forms of waste. From this perspective, excessive reliance on email just creates needless waste. So, in the always pithy words of Merlin Mann, let's "envision a world where sweating over your beepy electronic device starts looking about as “executive” and “pro-active” as sucking on a crack pipe in the break room."