Shattering the Chains of Your Inbox with “5S" | How to Be Lean with Email (Part 3 of 5)

As a blissfully ignorant, wet-behind the ears civilian...

...who made good grades in Engineering school, I experienced an fantastically rude awakening in 2003.


I embarked on an intense training and qualification program at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, in Charleston, SC.  My first job out of college was designed to train and develop the Nuclear Navy on the rear one-third of a nuclear submarine and Carrier.


In a class of 25 students, I was one of five civilians selected to learn about Naval Nuclear Propulsion alongside 20 Officers, mostly from The Naval Academy. 

I was completely unprepared for the experience. 

The military environment, the confidentiality, the arrogance of the staff, it all intimidated the heck out of me. 

Further, I had a really hard time grasping the firehose volume of material I was attempting to drink day in and day out.  I quickly went from top of my class in Engineering school, to bottom of the barrel in Nuclear Power School. 


My grades sucked. 


It was my first job, the first time I’d ever worked professionally and I had absolutely zero perspective.


And I was scared as hell! 


Over the course of the six month program I was clocking in over 80 hours of classroom and study time per week - I knew exactly how much I was working because Big Brother had a read-out at the badge swipe when entering the building.


Geeked-out soldiers had the pleasure of enjoying and competing on daily tallies every time we congregated near the threshold of the entrance.  For them, there was pride in putting in less hours...


It meant they were “smarter” than those having to burn hour after hour - bragging rights.


I felt inept.


My process for learning in Engineering school didn’t work for Naval Nuclear Power School.  The principles I’d been accustomed to proved ineffective.  I gave it a good run, the ole “college try" and it didn’t work; I got burned out. 


Yet, instead of giving up on my quest to find a solution for passing the program, I chalked up my failure as a loss, tossed it aside (out of my mind) and kept my eyes on the prize.  


Granted, this was a much easier task in theory than in practice, in reality it took many hours of deep prayer and inward reflection, but it gave me the fuel to make a critical change.  


I changed my mindset; developed a new strategy, and ultimately experienced a paradigm shift in how I approached my studies.


Even though I failed several times, by no means were these failures a waste of time. 


I learned from them, I learned about myself. 


When Do We Really Fail?

We can’t be afraid to fail or to try something new.  In fact, failure isn’t failure at all.  The only time you ever fail is when you don’t learn from the experience and use it to improve on the next.

Photo by   Behrooz Nobakht


That’s what lean thinking is all about, continuously improving and refining…it honestly never stops because the world never stops changing…continuously! 


So you’ll never truly reach perfection.  Yet, taking small, continuous steps of towards perfection, which is defined differently for everyone, should always be the goal. 


Let’s face it, we’ve failed multiple times working out of our inbox, we’re not perfect.


But what does perfection mean, really? 


For me, it’s a personal vision of how we should work and live. 


My vision is implanted into the way I work each day, in how I manage my email.  


We’ve all failed, multiple times working out of our inbox and letting others control our day. 


I’ve used my personal vision as the foundation for refining what I believe to be a truly effective process for shifting my mindset about email and how deliberate I am about how to spend time.


The process is effective in not only managing your inbox, but for driving things forward efficiently, and for making the best use of our time! 


The idea is to free ourselves up from the chains of our inbox, and concentrate on what really matters to us…

"Remember, the goal is not to stay on top of email, but to eliminate email distractions, so we can be more effective at work and at home."


So let’s get a little lean something going...


What's this "5S" Thing Anyway?

We’ve defined opportunity (D), measured our time (M), analyzed the “why” (A) so enough already, let’s IMPROVE something!


Taking it back to DMAIC, as outlined in Parts 1 & 2, we’re now exploring how to use lean thinking for improving not only email, but also our personal effectiveness.


Lean thinking, a product of lean manufacturing, originated in Japan, and gained popularity as Toyota continuously operated at significantly lower cost than the competition.


Although there’s a whole bunch of tools and concepts available and wrapped up into the notion of “lean,” what hits home the most for me considering email, is called a practice called “5S.” 


The first few S's go like this...


1 - Sort (seiri)

Remove unnecessary items and dispose of them properly (Sort Strategy #1)

In the manufacturing world, “sort” enthusiasts actually "red tag” items or tools that don’t belong in the work area; this way, appropriate parties know to get them out of there. 

For office workers on email, this may mean getting rid of stuff on the desk that distracts us, or doesn’t directly contribute to getting our work done.  


For example, a pile of “Home & Garden” magazines, excessive stress balls from one-too-many conferences, thank you cards for a job-well done, etc.  You’d be amazed at what I’ve seen on people’s desks! 


Pretty straightforward right? 


You may not think it’s a big deal, but studies show that these out-of-place items actually drain our energy…we’re thinking about them whether we consciously realize it or not…and these things will decrease our ability to focus on valuable work. 


We may be able to focus at some level, but we won’t achieve “flow,” that mental state where we’re 100% in the moment. 


We all have this ability, and we should all aim to get as close to this state of flow as possible, each and every day.


The “sort” principle applies electronically too, where photos, coupons, and 3-yr-old files scanned and saved on your desktop all contribute to a non-optimal mental state of mind.


Here are the remaining elements related to “sort”:


Eliminate obstacles that prevent you from working (SORT STRATEGY #2)

Obstacles could be a non-ergonomically correct keyboard, a slow computer, a non-functioning printer or just not having the right tools available for you to do your job effectively. 


I have a standard list of critical items for my home office to get my job done.


Prevent accumulation

Accumulation is all about having the right process setup for dealing with paper and email that enters your work life, and again, the right tools and processes to manage them. 


Remove the chance of being disturbed with unnecessary items (SORT STRATEGY #3)

Ahhh, this one is BIG for me!


It applies to disturbances via both email AND people.  Like Tim Ferriss describes in The Four-Hour Workweek, I like to think of disturbances as invasions...


This helps me emulate that notion waiving my fist in the air and fighting back, which pumps me up a bit more than it should.


Know that sort is all about setting ourselves up for success, and that the four sort elements can be applied to both our work area AND our computer.


The second 5S principle is “set” or “straighten,” whatever’s easier for you to remember. 

Here are the four key set elements that you can apply to managing your inbox, I’m just gonna put them all out there at once for you:


2 - Set or Straighten (seiton)

“Set” is a very tactical concept.  As such, I’m going to give provide you with my top three strategies for "setting,” “straightening,” or effectively “processing" email efficiently - and it starts with setting up automatic email rules. 


The four elements to look for in “set” are:

  1.     Arrange all items so they are easy to use

  2.     Eliminate waste

  3.     Make things easier to find

  4.     Streamline workflow


Whether you’re using Gmail, Outlook, MacMail or another email client, you have the ability to setup rules to manage your email.

Good rules, eliminate the problem of getting overwhelmed with random, haphazard inbox invasions.  


My Top 3 Strategies for “Setting” Email:

The Bacon Rule (“Set” Strategy #1)

You see the problem with email is it’s complete and utter randomness.  You can’t control when or how it comes to your inbox, but you can develop a strategy for sorting through it quickly. 

The "Bacon" Rule

The "Bacon" Rule

For me, one of the most effective tools I’ve discovered is to implement my first of three “set” strategies. 


You may not want to hear this, but you did this to yourself you know…YOU opened up your inbox to invasions; it may have been through actions you don’t even remember: 

  • you signed up for a free download,
  • joined a professional society, or maybe you just
  • needed a coupon at Office Depot that required your email. 


Who knows how they got it, but they got it.  You’re on their list. 


It’s not’s BACON


Spam involves terms like hacking, phishing, stealing, or in most cases, selling


When you initiate the action yourself…it’s BACON


Please note that in some cases, bacon CAN ferment into SPAM.  This happens when your email address gets sold to a 3rd party via one of your bacon channels.  


Let’s not dwell on the negative and focus on what we can control, shall we?


Some bacon you actually like to read, I know I do.  Especially when I receive those really great tips on commercial email marketing - I make sure I’m all over that stuff!  


I’m kidding, I’m kidding (sort of).  


For the bacon you want, your goal is to consume and process it as efficiently as possible, without interfering with important email that requires your response.   In other words, make your bacon easier to use and the important stuff easier to find (both of which are key “set” elements). 


To do this, create a rule that moves all bacon into a single folder. The most effective method for pushing your bacon out of your inbox, is to create a rule that keys in on the word “unsubscribe.” 


There may be some one-off bacon that doesn’t use the phrase “unsubscribe,” maybe it's “manage your subscription,” or something similar.  You can play with keywords however you see fit based on the sender’s content.  


The point is, setup the bacon rules that work best for you, and get this stuff out of your inbox.  This tactic effectively applies the eliminate waste element of “set.”


Next, once, no more than twice per week, schedule a time on your calendar to review your bacon.  Plan this time, and show up.  


If you can’t make it, reschedule the time and make sure it gets back on your calendar. 


I can’t emphasize the importance of keeping daily work tasks blocked out as TIME on your calendar.  I’ve learned it’s really easy to get through bacon if you block out just 30m per week for bacon time.  


Note that the time spent must be dedicated, focused time, where all you’re doing is checking bacon. 


If you keep the bacon in your inbox and just manage it as it comes through, with the rest of your email, you can multiple the time it takes to go through it by a factor of 10.  


That’s no joke.  


So we’ve described what to do w/the bacon you want, what about the bacon you just don’t want to bring home anymore?  Well, it probably goes without saying, but just take the time to unsubscribe. 


Renounce the quilting newsletter, let Taco Bell know you don’t need $0.50 off chulupa’s anymore because you’re eating healthier nowadays, and just get yourself off the dang list by taking 2 minutes to “Unsubscribe.” 


If you want a smaller portion of their the bacon, but not as much as you’re currently receiving, often times the merchant will have options to reduce the frequency in your account settings

(Twitter and Facebook are really good examples for when you can make these types of adjustments). 


The Report Rule (“Set” Strategy #2)

Not quite as catchy as the Bacon Rule, I’m gonna have to work on that…Corporate America is phenomenal at sending out daily, weekly, and/or monthly reports.  I consider corporate reports an internal form of bacon, and as such, should be dealt with using a similar strategy.  


You can setup rules to manage reports just like you do with bacon.  Even though you may not need the report information as soon as it comes, you may need it some day.  I typically setup rules that key in on the report subject line to push the report into it’s own dedicated folder in at the email client.


This is very effective at moving them out of your inbox, but be careful!  There’s a caveat that’s come back to bite me in the past.  Often times senders will send you a direct email by either forwarding, replying, or worse, “replying to all” and maintaining the words of the report subject line.


If this happens, the sender's reply will get auto-pushed to your report folder as soon as it hits you inbox.  Depending on the frequency that you check that specific report folder, you may not see it for a week, or never.  You may get a phone call a month later from the sender, asking where you are at with the sender’s request. 


Note that this theoretical sender would be exhibiting bad email etiquette on multiple levels by using this tactic.  Shame on them in the first place, sure, but…if you don’t want to go there right now and break his or her bad email habits, you can setup “if/then” rule statements or get more specific with your to/from rules, etc., to move these types of replies or forwards from your report folder, back to your inbox. 


I found this to be a bit of a pain.  Instead, I spend literally, less than 2 minutes doing a quick daily scan of ALL my report folders to make sure I’m not missing any replies or forwards addressed to me, specifically. 


If, during this daily search, I discover a reply that absolutely requires my response, then the first thing I do is change the subject line so future email correspondence on this particular request doesn’t get pushed back to my report folder a second time. 


Nevertheless, before I decide to respond in the first place, I must first determine how best to process the message.  To do this, I use David Allen’s >2M rule.  .


>2M Rule (“Set” Strategy #3)

When it’s time to check and process email, you’re not to spend 45-mins crafting a response to your sender.  Your job is to read, consume, and process the email as quickly as possible. 

If you want to “prevent accumulation,” any email that you judge to take less than 2 minutes to either reply, file, or trash should be dealt with on the spot.  Do it now, don’t save it for later.  Be careful though, many times you’ll think you’re spending <2M replying to an email when you’re actually consuming 5 or 10. 


Before you know what hit you, you’ll run out of your scheduled email processing time and you’ll get behind.  This defeats the purpose of setting up an email process.  If you suspect this may be a problem, test yourself with a stopwatch for the first few weeks of implementing the >2M rule, until you get a better sense of time. 


On the other hand, if you start reading the message and determine it’s going to take MORE than two minutes, or turn into a project of some sort, determine the next logical step required to complete the request, or to manage the message. 


Then, put this next logical step on a working task list, some people like to call it a “to-do” list - it can be created electronically, or by hand.  Once the step is documented, move the message to a “>2M folder” for future reference. 


That’s the nuts and bolts of the “set” principle.  Hopefully you now have some new tactics you can take with you tomorrow at work.


How about the third “S” of 5S?


How about next week?


We’ve been through a lot…


It’s time to let this marinate for a few days!


Give sort and set a try tomorrow - you can’t fail, there’s no such thing!


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Please leave a comment below and let me know what you’re doing, or what you plan to do, to better manage email tomorrow morning at work!


Continue reading this series on Lean Email: