Email: the tool of last resort

Your post advocates a

( ) technical ( ) legislative ( ) market-based ( ) vigilante

approach to fighting spam. Your idea will not work. Here is why it won’t work[…]

— The beginning of the form letter “spamsolutions.txt,” used to explain why a given spam “solution” won’t work.

Email is an incredible tool: it’s one of the few technologies that people are expected to understand and use. Everyone has an email address and should be checking their inbox.

When people need something from someone else, and no other electronic system exists, people often use email. Because email is the “default” tool to send work forward, email is an excellent place to identify process improvements. Emails represent work-in-progress: work you are responsible for, work you need to be consulted about, or work you need to be informed of.

The thing is, your emails represent many, many different processes. People get into trouble when they believe there is a silver bullet solution to email that will drastically affect your inbox. Although there are some general improvements to make email more efficient, if you look carefully email can point to high-impact, low-effort opportunities to reduce email and make processes more effective.

Email as a system

Just to remind ourselves: you have no control over how many emails you receive. Your boss can choose to email you a dozen times a day. Someone in another office may decide they’d rather email you than call you. Parents may find your email address. Email by design places all the costs on the recipient.

Spam filters and email filtering help you manage your inbox, but fundamentally you only control the number of emails you send.

General email improvements

Many techniques exist to make email more efficient. However, very few of these make your processes more effective (i.e. they do not eliminate emails from coming in in the first place).

That said, here’s a few of these general techniques for improving your use of email:

  • batching: check your email once a day but go through it all. Often associated with the “Getting Things Done” time management system. This approach can be good in that all emails are actually reviewed and processed. One of batching’s limitations is that it contributes to the Lean waste of “mura,” or unevenness. (People are going to get a lot of emails from you all at once.)
  • triaging: identifying urgent emails quickly, for example with Gmail’s “priority inbox” or moving emails quickly to a different folder once you’ve looked at them. This helps mitigate the batching issue but you must touch many emails twice (or more).
  • turn off notifications: don’t let yourself get interrupted unless there’s a high-priority message.
  • setting departmental standards: you can’t control everyone who emails you, but maybe your department sets standards such as “write FYI in the subject if the message does not require a reply.”
  • write emails that complete the chain: anticipate any questions your email might raise, for example “Let’s meet next week; I’m free Thursday 2-3 PM or Friday 9 AM-12 PM ET. I can meet you in your office or anywhere on campus you’d like. Just send me a calendar invitation or tell me the best time and I’ll send one out.” Tim Ferriss talks about this concept in The 4-Hour Workweek.
  • if a thread goes on long enough, switch to synchronous conversation (e.g. the phone): this recognizes that communications can become greatly distorted from emails. Hearing someone’s voice helps humanize them and can help issues be resolved more quickly.

Finding processes to improve

All that said, the point of this article is that your email inbox & outbox are great sources for finding specific processes to improve. Here’s one simple way to identify the processes that are using email.

Block some time to go through your email archive/inbox. For each message you receive, ask yourself why you received it. Start building a breakdown structure for your emails and tally how many emails go in each section. Your breakdown might look something like this:

  • Money stuff
    • My approval needed to purchase…
      • Office supplies (3)
      • Project management tool (1)
    • Monthly financial reports (1)
    • My approval needed for invoices (8)
  • Requests for me to clarify something
    • Requests about work we have already discussed
      • …from my direct reports (22)
      • …from project team members (7)
    • Stuff people have heard about from others (12)
  • Vacation
    • Vacation announcements (30)
    • My approval needed for vacation time (7)
    • Approval from my boss for my vacation time (1)

In the above case, potential improvements could include

  • making a list of “pre-approved” office supplies that people don’t need to ask about before purchasing
  • seeing whether the information I use to approve invoices could be provided to someone downstream who processes the invoice, i.e. they get more information about the invoice so they can make a decision
  • thinking about how to clarify work more with direct reports and project team members, for example by creating a list of frequently asked questions
  • identifying the types of things people tend to hear from others and seeing whether a department-wide weekly newsletter could address these proactively
  • creating a report or a reference point for vacation announcements and then filtering these or creating a social norm that you don’t need to send announcements anymore
  • letting people self-select their vacation time and making them accountable for their work being covered when they’re gone

The more of these simple process improvements I perform, the fewer emails I will receive.

You can then do the same analysis on your outbox.

Shifting content to a knowledge base

You will quickly find that many of your emails are requests for information: what’s our address? how long did the last project take?

For common requests, you may want to document the answer in a departmental knowledge base–something even as simple as a Google Site. Then you can send a link to the knowledge base to encourage people to consult the knowledge base.

(Note for the advanced reader: please also keep in mind that some questions might not be worth answering. As a manager, be careful because the questions you ask show what you care about. They will be remembered and your employees may spend effort creating systems to answer those questions for you in the future.)

Identifying other tools and tool requirements

Email may also show that other tools don’t exist, or that they are inadequate.

For example, emails about financial reports and financial approvals may indicate the potential value of an on-demand self-service financial reporting tool and a workflow system. People may be using email as a workaround because existing tools can’t deliver this functionality (or people don’t know how).

At this point improvements probably won’t be “low-effort,” and the value may not be worth the cost of changing or acquiring a tool. But sometimes you can clearly see that using a simple tool (even a Google Form) may be able to move work from email and improve the quality and speed of the process.