How to Be Lean with Email | Analyze the Numbers (Part 2 of 5)

THREE hours per day on email, seriously???


The big shocker of 2016! 

Did you read and implement the strategies outlined Part 1 of our series on Lean email? How does it feel to discover exactly how much time you’re spending on email?

In case you missed it, in Part 1 of this series we introduced a Lean concept called DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) and applied it to our personal process for effectively managing email.  

We dove into the “D,” by defining the opportunity (to reduce time spent on with email), and then the "M," by providing ideas for simple methods for capturing and collecting data about our daily e-mail habits. 

a  nifty  toolbox

a nifty toolbox

This week, we’ll take a look at some nifty tools from the “Lean toolbox,” (nifty - where did that come from?)

We’ll dig into a few simple strategies for analyzing how we work with email, and setup a framework for analyzing our the reasons for why we deal with email the way we do.


The Big “A”

“A” is for Analysis.  In traditional Lean/Six Sigma processes, identifying what factors are considered statistically significant is critical.

Now that we have some data collected from the “M” in DMAIC, one of the first steps in “A” is to identify potential causes and narrow down those specific causes to determine what’s significant.

Nevertheless, the majority of people banging away at their keyboards do not have the time, nor the desire to run statistical models on their email processes, to determine what's statistically significant.  So, in lieu of performing regression analyses, and finding p-Values, it makes more sense to stick with a simple, high-level cause analysis.

Further, at the end of the day we’re talking about our personal email process.  This isn’t written to support a large corporate initiative to reduce time consumed on email, although the methods are applicable, it’s for the individual contributor to lead by example. 

As such, lean processes are better suited for personal effectiveness than detailed six sigma analyses. 

So how do we "get lean?"


Step 1 - Observe Process

It's important to first get a handle on not just the amount of time we spend inside our email client or the number of messages we send, as we did in the “Measure” phase, but to also take a look at the mechanics of our current email process.

Understanding the mechanics is where the value of a deliberate analysis comes in.  Analysis requires an objective observation of our current processes for working with email, and that’s not easy to do. 

Yet, it is possible to setup queues and triggers to keep us in the moment if we find ourselves drifting off track and consumed by whatever email message randomly hits our inbox.

We have yet to improve anything at this point, so we’re still in the mode of understanding our current process for working with email. 

As such, I recommend continuing to receive, respond and file messages as in the past.  However, instead of just moving on to the next task or message, take the time to analyze our process by learning to ask the right questions.


Step 2 - Ask the Right Questions

A practice I’ve put into place with many of my personal tasks is to develop the habit of asking myself questions about the various things I do each day, as if I were being interviewed.  

With email, let's suppose we were being interviewed by National Geographic for a documentary on email processes, and we were the interviewer of ourselves.

Further, imagine we had an annoying intern hovering over our shoulder asking us the same questions, over and over again with every message we send, with every click of the mouse.  

Consequently, anytime we open our email client, the first question our “self-intern” should be asking before we double-click is:

“What is the purpose of checking email at this particular time of the day?"

Our answer could be that a colleague requested some information and we need to send it to her before a specific deadline, or that we need to search for a report our Supervisor asked us about that’s filed somewhere in a specific location.

Finally, we may have remembered to schedule a meeting in Outlook and we just happen to have been allured by our email while the calendar launched.

The reasons for working on email are limitless, but the point is, we have a specific original reason for checking our email that must be acknowledged.


Step 3 - Write it Down

Grab a post-in note and write down your reason for checking email before you check it.  

This exercise alone may make us reconsider checking it when we feel the urge.

Now, with our specific reason in mind, it’s imperative that we become aware of how we work, and refer back to our original reason on the post-it note.  So when we’re in the fray, ask:

“Is the task I’m performing now, what I originally intended to do, when I launched my email client?"

If not, it’s ok! 

Remember, the intent is not to change anything yet, it’s to analyze our process.

If our reason is contrary to our original intent, then we can ask a few follow-up questions:

What triggered my change in strategy?

Why did I decide to do what I’m doing now, in lieu of, or in addition to what I was trying to do before I was distracted by this email message?


Step 4 - Identifying Causes

It’s getting interesting now.  Asking why we do what we do, gets to the heart of the matter.  It dives into the psychological reasons for why we’re on email, rather than (in many cases) doing more valuable work.

My favorite method for analyzing cause is to ask “why” five times.

Here’s an example of what's known as Five Why's:

Question 1:
Why did you decide to check the message from Mr. Brown instead of scheduling the critical task on your calendar?
I saw the message in Outlook when I was opening up my calendar and decided to click on it.
Question 2:
Why did you decide to click on it?
It was something I thought I would be able to respond to quickly before scheduling the critical task.
Question 3:
Why did you decide to respond to the message over scheduling the task?
It was easier.
Question 4:
Why was it easier?
Because scheduling the task forces me to commit to getting the task done.
Question 5:
Why does committing to the task feel harder than checking Mr. Brown’s message?
Because I’m afraid of failing. 


Distraction by email could be a symptom of a hidden issue. 

“5 Why’s” could uncover a good reason for why we work with our inbox the way we do.  It’s only after we’ve acknowledged the reason that we’re able to implement an improvement strategy that addresses it, rather than solving only the symptom.


What Can Go Wrong?

A Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is a fancy way of describing a Lean tool we can use for asking “what can go wrong?” and “how severe of a problem is it?"

For email, FMEA is valuable because if we’re honest about our answer when we ask ourselves whether the task we’re performing at any given time is what we originally intended to do when we decided to check email, or even why we’re on email in the first place, we can start brainstorming a list of “what went wrong’s.” Here’s a few:

  1. I saw a notification of an incoming message
  2. I heard a notification of the incoming message
  3. I was procrastinating a hard task
  4. I was unconsciously avoiding a hard task
  5. I opened Outlook without even thinking about it
  6. My boss asked me to respond to an email from a client, etc.

However many items go our list, it’s possible to rate the likelihood of their reoccurrence and the severity of it’s potential to luring us into opening email without intending to do so.  A simple scale of 1 to 3 (high, medium, low) or 1 to 5 (never, almost never, sometimes, often, always) works just fine.

Using #5 as an example, if I open Outlook 100% of the time, every time I arrive at my desk without even thinking about it then I would give it a “likelihood” rating of 5.  If every time I start my office time with Outlook, I find myself lost in email I’d give it a “severity” rating of 5 as well.

Contrarily, if my boss only occasionally asks me to respond to email unexpectedly then the likelihood rating would be “3,” etc.

It’s an exercise of looking inward, of figuring out the true causes for why we our relationship with email is the way it is.  Going through this will help pinpoint what to focus on for the next phase of DMAIC, the Improve phase, and which improvements will provide the greatest return on our time. 


If You Actually Like This Analysis Thing...

Five Why’s and FMEA are only two of a huge number of tools available for performing a Lean analysis.  If you're craving a moment to geek out, iSixSigma is a good resource for gaining an overview of the various analysis tools available for this sort of thing.

Nevertheless, we’re trying to improve our personal effectiveness when working with email.  While making decisions based on data is the ideal approach, the reality is that regardless of the underlying cause, I view the role of analysis as it pertains to email, as a strategy for improving awareness, rather than to drive improvement strategies. 

If we drill down to the “why,” we’re more equipped to deal with the “how,” than if we were to randomly implement improvement strategies in hopes that something sticks.

There are plenty of strategies for improving effectiveness that will ultimately result in saving significant time and if taken seriously, will stick.  However, without awareness, using sheer will power to develop a consistent habit that ultimately changes behavior will likely fizzle out after a few weeks.  Deliberate analysis combats the likelihood of fizzle and mitigates the risk of slipping into former modes of operation.

What are your “why’s?” 

Have you thought about the reasons for your relationship with email? 

Please leave a comment below and let us know your experiences!

Next week our series moves to strategies for improvement….sure, there's no “I” in team, but there’s plenty of “I” in E-M-A-I-L!


Continue reading this series on Lean Email: