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Solve Your Email Woes with Lean, Part 1

The goal is to eliminate waste activity in our processing of email and to achieve some flow. Begin by using the 5S technique to clean up your current mess.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions, LLC

The Lean methodology was developed for and within a manufacturing environment. That does not mean that it cannot be adapted to the office environment. Use the Lean principles to solve your email troubles and be and feel more efficient.

The Rest of the Story

One of my favorite questions to ask when I’m talking with someone about improving business processes is, “What are the top five pains that you have every week?” It’s my way of drilling into where the greatest waste is, because in my experience waste often manifests as pain.

Many times the answer varies, depending on the nature of the business and the business culture. There is one answer that shows up more, however, that I’m surprised when it doesn’t, “email.” Sound familiar? It seems that almost everyone finds that managing email is one of the greatest pains and sources of waste to face each day.

Perhaps you think that I’m wisecracking about using Lean to solve your email problems. I’m dead serious. In fact it makes a great example of how the Lean problem-solving methodology can be applied to identify and eliminate waste.

That being written, if you are already steeped in Lean knowledge, then read on and perhaps you will have one of those forehead-slapping “I should have had a V8” moments like I did a couple of years ago. If you are not a Lean expert, then enjoy this voyage into an example of just how simple and effective the Lean methodology can be for solving problems.

If you think about it, email has a great deal in common with manufacturing production. They both have demands and materials that come in; in the case of email we can consider information to be like material. They both have a product or output that we must create and send to a designated recipient. Managing each requires resources and failing to manage each costs a lot.

Before we start solving our email challenges, let’s take a very quick look at a handful of Lean terms and principles. Then we can all proceed on the same track.

First, we need to understand that the Lean methodology focuses on eliminating waste. Waste is that which is not “value-added” and is also unnecessary. Value is defined as delivering the correct, quality thing to the customer, on time, with minimal waste, for the correct price. Anything that does not directly contribute to providing that product to the customer is non-value-added. Some non-value-added activities, such as tracking metrics, are non-value-added but necessary for the efficient, effective operation of the business and might not be considered waste.

A simple way to think about value-added is to identify what the customer would pay you to do. A customer would pay you to convert material into a product. A customer would not pay you to make copies of drawings for safekeeping. We do not want to necessarily eliminate everything that is non-value-added, but we absolutely want to eliminate every non-value-added activity that is not necessary waste.

Typically there are seven to nine definitions of waste. For the sake of keeping our example here concise, let’s use the following ones with regard to our email. You may very well identify other types of waste you experience, but this will get us started.

  1. Inventory: Material or work that is resting and not being developed or processed.
  2. Motion: Is effort or activity that is not producing value –usually associated with unnecessary movement.
  3. Waiting: Are people or other assets that do not have the material needed to process work.
  4. Defects: An improper output that usually results in rework (work that you have already done and is therefore waste) or in delivery of poor quality or defective product.
  5. Over-processing: Doing more work than is necessary to process material or product.
  6. Overproduction: Making too much or delivering too much — which often also turns into inventory or rework.

As I wrote, there are more types, but these are perhaps the most common and damaging with regard to e-mail and examination of these six will get us well under way.

Lastly, before we begin problem solving, let me quickly outline a common Lean tool called, “5S.” Five S is a tool, which organizes and standardizes a workspace to prevent waste and to make it easier to problem solve and identify other waste-eliminating opportunities. Briefly, the “S’s” are as follows:

  1. Sort — organize your material, tools, or work and throw away the unnecessary.
  2. Set — create a specific place for everything that you organized and set limits (this last part will be very important).
  3. Shine — clean out your workspace so that it is easy to access and find that which you have organized.
  4. Standardize — ensure that all related or similar operations work the same way; if others play in your space make sure they follow the same rules.
  5. Sustain — make it a habit, which requires some discipline.

OK, that should be enough preliminaries to get us started.

To start, I’d like to recognize that our email software is our workspace. When we apply the 5S idea, we will be applying it to the way we set-up and utilize our email platform, software, or service.

Next, I’d like to point out that the emails in your in-box are inventory, one of the wastes. Essentially, every one of those messages is some form of work waiting to be processed, or if it’s already processed, is taking up space and your attention unnecessarily. Our goal from here on will be to minimize or eliminate that inventory to the best degree practical.

Schedule a block of time, after normal hours if you must, to go through the process I’m about to describe and get your email under control. Once you have it under control, you can begin improving your efficiency.

The first step on your path to manageable email is to execute the 5S technique. Go through your email and dump everything that isn’t important. That may include cleaning out your archived stuff as well. As you do, make a quick list of folders or queues that you want to have. Personally, I only care to have one in-box, but some like to segregate customers or programs. When you have done that, you have “sorted.”

If you are one of those personalities or in one of those environments such that you are compelled to keep records of every transmission, don’t do so with your in-box. “Set” a special archive for your records. Create folders and organize them so that you can quickly and easily both place your records and find them later. Also, I strongly recommend setting up a prioritized to-do list after a fashion that suits you best. This will be important.

Perhaps the most important part of the “Set” step is to set limits. Do what you need to do, but my preference is to create a window of a certain size for my email and leave it that way. A big tool used throughout Lean is a visual trigger. The window for my email is my visual trigger. I set a limit for myself that dictates I am not allowed to have more emails (read or un-read) in my in-box than will fit in the window.

When my window is full, I am to take a few minutes and process them to make more space. Believe me, frequent bursts of a minute or two are much less painful than spending afternoons cleaning everything up because the inventory piled up. It also prevents my internal and external customers from waiting.

The “Set” step can also be used to set your filters to automatically direct incoming messages to those in-boxes you organized. It’s not my preference to do this – in my mind it creates more motion for me, but if it helps you then feel free. Manually moving emails around would be a type of motion and should be avoided unless you feel it prevents some other sort of waste or saves you motion in terms of finding it when you need it.

As you are organizing your email folders, file folders, and in-boxes, keep the waste of motion in mind. The activity of searching for information or e-mails is motion, and it is waste. Do whatever works best for you to ensure you can place and find records and information quickly.

Now, move on to “Shine” your email workspace. Set your color schemes and font preferences, flags, and other settings so that it is easy for you to distinguish your emails in a meaningful way. For example, you might make read and unread emails appear very different. Re-opening an email you have already read is over-processing. So is reading an email you have already processed and for which you have completed your actions. Again, consider meaningful visual triggers to help prevent over-processing.

"Standardize” your folders, in-boxes, and archives so that they all work the same way. If you used the “Shine” step to make them different colors to quickly tell them apart, don’t undo that in the name of standardization. The purpose is to do that which will make utilizing our email easy and quick. If you have an administrator that aids you in processing your email, standardize your method with him/her.

Please tune into the Chemical Equipment Daily for part two of this two-part series.