The Lean Approach to Email Management: It's Not About Technology


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.

First, 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:

Email 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 cellphones.

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.

But 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 sender?

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.

So 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 the electronic equivalent of 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.

The real 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.

But 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.

A tax 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:

  • When 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.)
  • Commit 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.

5 Comments