Sustaining Email Improvements | How to be Lean with Email Using “5S” (Part 5 of 5)

Email junkies are either scared or lazy. 


It’s not difficult to reduce the amount of email we receive even as early as TODAY.  The problem is most of us are either too scared or too lazy to revert back to productive human interactions.


As we wrap up this five-part series on getting lean with email, I’d like to offer you an example. 


If you’ve ever worked in Corporate, the following conversation over email may look disturbingly familiar (I took the liberty of playing the role of the recipient):

From: Jim Simmons

To:  Nick Snapp

Subject:  shipping numbers

Nick, Do you have the updated shipping numbers you sent me last week? 

- Jim

And here are some possible thoughts that may follow receipt of an email like this one...

Uhhhhh, not again, seriously???!!!  I’m tired of solving Jim’s problems; he’s asked me to look up the shipping numbers for him five times already!!! 

I’ve already sent him access to look them up himself but he refuses to think for himself.  He depends on me, doesn’t respect my time, and I’m not going to be here to hold is hand anymore.

From:  Nick Snapp

To:  Jim Simmons

Subject: Re: shipping numbers

I’m really busy today. I’lll get them to you later.

Notice the passive-aggressive attitude from the recipient…I wonder how Jim will respond?

From:  Jim Simmons

To:  Nick Snapp

Subject: Re: shipping numbers

My boss is asking that I send him my report by end of day, any chance you can get it done  within the next few hours?

Perhaps some more familiar frustrated thoughts from the recipient?:

You’ve got to be kidding me!!!  Now I have to DROP EVERYTHING I’m doing, because Jim waited till the last minute to ask me for the numbers when he already knows full-well how to pull them without bothering me.  It’s time to copy Jim’s boss; She’s got to know how fricking lazy this guy is!!!

From:  Nick Snapp

To:  Jim Simmons

CC: Andrea Wright

Subject: Re: shipping numbers

Jim, I’ve showed you how to pull these numbers off the H drive a few times already.  Do you absolutely need me to drop everything to show you how to do this again?


I’m sure Jim appreciated this message and will certainly respond with, “you know you’re right, you  DON’T have to show me how to do this again.”

From:  Jim Simmons

To:  Nick Snapp

CC: Andrea Wright

Subject: Re: shipping numbers

Nick, The server is down right now and I know you have them on your computer.  I could really use the help; thanks in advance for your support.


Who’s the Jackass Now?

I don’t need to outline who looks like the jackass at this point, do I?  Not to mention the relationship that now requires restoration as a result of email habits rooted in (1) laziness, (2) fear, and (3) misinterpretation.

“Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: some observers hold that there isn't any. But this wrongs the jackass.”   -Mark Twain

“Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: some observers hold that there isn't any. But this wrongs the jackass.” -Mark Twain


Email interaction can never replace human interaction.  In my opinion, both Jim and Nick made mistakes. 


First, Jim’s original message should have never been sent. 


He could have explained his situation over the phone, and probably received quicker results without all the baggage that he pulled along with it, including now, his supervisor’s interpretation of the situation, which he’ll probably have to waste another 10 to 15 minutes explaining so he can save his own face...


(Whoa I just had a flashback…I totally feel for all of you working in Corporate America right now)


Second, Nick took it upon himself to interpret the request as a disrespectful attempt to enable Jim’s lazy behavior, the majority of which evolved in an isolated debate between Nick’s ears.


All Nick had to do was pick up the phone, or walk to the other end of the office, or God forbid another floor, and clarify with Jim the reasons for his request.


It’s possible to express our concerns in an objective manner, or even just politely explain his thoughts for why it would be more efficient for Jim to pull the numbers himself.  It probably would’ve taken five or ten minutes of time, but in the long-term, saved the hassle of future requests like these from Jim.


Instead, it blew up.

None of this had to happen. 


You want to save yourself garbage-email banter like this? 


We need a few guidelines that if followed, will NEVER allow us to get into situations like this again:


4 Ways to Receive Less Email...Today!

The more email you send, the more you receive.  If you want you’re life back, think good and hard before you click “send.” 


Here are four email etiquette strategies that if implemented, will help you receive LESS email, today:


1 - Thanks

The most obvious offender over email is the one-word “thanks” reply to a sender who did something for you via email. 


Whether or not a person shows two seconds of gratitude to a sender for his or her thoughtful message, a one-word "thanks" does not demonstrate genuine appreciation for what the sender did.  In contrast, it demonstrates the recipient's inherent laziness. 


If you truly appreciate the information he or she sent you, take the time to pick up the phone or thank them in person.  It will go a heck of a lot further…


I realize that some people use “thanks” as confirmation of receipt; but I’d argue that confirmation of receipt doesn’t excuse bad practice.  To be clear, all my email messages contain the following signature (it reminds me to resist the “thanks” temptation and do something meaningful every time I send a message over email - you’re welcome to steal it and make it your own):

Please note: to reduce your email clutter and mine, I commit to never sending you a reply message of just “thanks.” If you seek confirmation of receipt, please indicate so in your message.

A second option is to setup an auto-responder stating the same thing.  An auto-response in and of itself, will limit the quantity of messages people send to you because either (1) they don’t want to receive it, or because (2) they won’t read it and assume you’re on vacation (the latter makes me happy 😃 )


2 - If/Then’s

Instead of posing a question and waiting for a response, our first action should be to pick up the phone.  If our intended recipient doesn’t answer, or we're working outside his or her time zone or something, then we should be deliberate about your questions. 


Instead of:

"Will you have the report done today?”


Try something like:

“My department requires your report because of [X].  We’re holding off on making a decision until we see your numbers due to [Y].  If you’ll have it done today, please send it to me directly and give me a call when it’s in my inbox.  If not, please reply with when you’ll have it complete and copy my Supervisor.  I’ll check back with you in two hours if I don’t receive a response."


Which of the two will better mitigate the risk of cluttering our inbox?


3 - CC’s

I typically don’t copy anyone to an email message unless he or she requests I do so. 


If you do copy another person, it’s an exceptional practice to let them know in advance why you plan to copy them to your email message. This act of consideration will not only welcome your message into their inbox, but also demonstrate your true respect of the person’s time, a priceless act of appreciation. 


If a CC’d party does not expect your message, you’re contributing to the noise, but I recognize advanced notice isn't always possible.  


If you don’t take the time to inform a CC’d party in advance and you do need to copy him or her, then indicate in your message, the specific reason WHY you are copying the person what they need to do with your message, if anything. 


Don’t copy the world…you’re message will just get deleted, waste time, cause confusion and make you look bad.


4 - Chatter

Contrary to popular belief, email is NOT instant message.  The worst example of email chatter is one that includes ANY copied recipients, but it happens all the time.


If a sender is not proficient with IF/THEN statements, don't contribute to the noise...try the phone, a face-to-face interaction or even an actual instant messenger. 


Are We Getting Better?

We can see how we’re doing by tallying up the number of messages sent each day at the end of a given day.  Most email clients make this very simple for us.


Do a quick check of your sent messages at the end of the day and set a target for yourself.


Can you get away with only sending 20 per day?


10 per day?




I know I am susceptible to really geeking-out on this one by tracking email over time to get a visual of how I'm improving, but that’s just the engineer in me talking…don't laugh, I’m sure at the wheels are turning in at least one person who’s reading this right now!


About that Fifth “S” 

Let’s not forget about the foundation of what this series has been about over the last five weeks….following the DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) system for process improvement, and implementing 5S principles within the Improvement phase to “shatter” the chains of our email inbox.  


As a quick recap:


In Part 1, we covered the first two steps of the Lean/Six Sigma DMAIC strategy: (1) Define and (2) Measure.


In Part 2, we took a dive into the third phase of DMAIC, (3) Analyze.


Part 3 was all about the fourth phase, “Improve,” and this is where we took a rather deep dive into “5S” principles can be applied for the improve phase. 


We covered two of the 5S’s in Part 3:

1 - Sort

2 - Set


For Part 4, we went through the next two S’s in detail:

3 - Shine

4 - Standardize


Finally, herein with Part 5, it’s now time to conclude not only the fifth “S” of 5S, but also the “C” in DMAIC…


5 - Sustain (shitsuku)

If it's not sustainable, it simply doesn't matter.  


How long it takes to form a habit?  

If you said three weeks, you’d be correct.  Three weeks and it’s locked in.


What does it take to break a habit?

Two misses.  If you’re scheduled to go to the gym but you can’t make it one day, you may feel bad about it, but you’re fine.  You let it happen again and your prefrontal cortex goes into complacency mode.  


Working out is no longer a priority and you need to start from scratch.  That’s why commitment in this area is so important - the habit needs time to marinate.


Lock in the Gains | Make Them Visible

Even if it’s as simple as spending less time on email and we implement all the recommendations outlined over the last five blog posts, and our work and home lives improve, it’s all-too-easy to slip back into poor habits.


In Part 1 we established a system for measuring our email habits.  Now we need to establish s system for measuring how we’re spending all our time.  You may save 15, even 20-hours per week by improving your email habits!


So what are you doing with that time?


How can you quantify this success?


In contrast, don’t get discouraged if you’re not batting 1,000 straight out of the dugout.  You’re likely to fall back into bad habits over time, but the metrics we established from the beginning of our commitment to spending less time on email will keep us on the right path, if we pay attention to them. 


Always frame progress in a positive light - even if you sent just two less emails in a given week, it’s positive progress. 


If progress isn’t tracked, and worse, no one is looking at it because it’s not in our face every day, improvement will not be sustainable.


So What?

When I think of my daily tasks, it’s imperative to consider which of those tasks, to put it bluntly, will earn income.  Whether it's income for myself, as an entrepreneur, or for the Company, as an employee, that's what it comes down to doesn't it? 


If your position doesn’t directly contribute to earning money for the business, it most certainly contributes to it’s spend.  If we spend less time on email, we’re potentially working less overtime, or adding more value doing meaningful work.  The value we create is somehow contributing to the Company’s bottom line, or to your own.


"To measure is to know."   -Lord Kelvin

"To measure is to know." -Lord Kelvin

As such, to sustain the improvements we make over email, we must continue to track our investment and make these improvements visible in a creative way.  


If we know exactly how much time we work on income-generating tasks, versus those that don’t, we have a reoccurring incentive to continue our habits, especially if people see how we spend our time on a regular basis.


What doesn’t get tracked, doesn’t get improved.  


If we don’t know where we’ve started, it’s impossible to know where we are going.


Developing a personal system for tracking and measuring our time is a great subject for another blog article, but if we establish a system we trust, we can easily see how we’re currently spending our time, and measure our improvements over time.


Here’s a great article from Asian Efficiency on using available technology to easily track how we spend our days.


It All Goes Back to Accountability

Serving as our own accountability partner won’t work for long.  There needs to be someone in our lives who’s not afraid to hold our feet to the fire, and call us out when we don’t meet our goals.


In Corporate, we can be bold and review how we’re spending our time with our Supervisors on a regular basis.  Have the guts to be transparent, to ask for feedback.  This will only demonstrate you’re commitment to the Company and your career.  People that hide what they do each day can’t be trusted and need to go…don’t be one of those people.  


As entrepreneurs, we can be bold and make commitments to how we spend our time public, using innovative tools such as, or Mastermind groups.  We can find accountability partners dedicated to their own improvement and share lessons learned.  


Whatever we do to improve, we need to continue doing it and be objective about our results.



What if it Doesn’t Work?

If a new habit is established, I’d like to underscore the importance of being flexible and re-visiting habits that may not be optimized, or even beneficial.  If we continue under the premise that we’ve "already improved that,” but neglect what the data or our gut is telling us, we haven’t improved anything at all.


Life is about continuous improvement; no matter how good we are, there’s always ways to be great.


So what are you doing with that time?


Next Steps to Get Your Time Back...

Maybe you’re still frustrated with email and how you’re spending your time.

What are your next steps?

What are your next steps?


Perhaps you could use some guidance on how to setup you’re own systems, or to figure out how to track your time effectively.


Do you need someone you can trust to hold your feet to the fire?


Do you want get off email ALTOGETHER, and give the responsibility to someone else?  


I’d love to hear your story. 


If this series email resonates with you, I’ll offer you two hours of my time; two hours to serve you boldly.  


You deserve you’re time back for yourself, for you family.  Contact me and we’ll get you the relief you’re searching for; you don’t have to do this alone.


Continue reading this series on Lean Email: