Lean OfficeThe 5S

E-mail 5S

By Jon Miller Published on August 23rd, 2006

A Wall Street Journal article today says How You Handle Your E-mail Inbox Says A Lot About You. The article identifies that e-mail is overwhelming people. There is an example of one person who was stressed out by 500 e-mails in their inbox, another who had 10,000 e-mails in their inbox. This article should be readable without a subscription as it was in the Free Today section.
What does it mean that I have a desire to empty my inbox each day? It could be “how Mom and Dad raised you” as the article says, or it could be that Lean thinking has seeped into my e-mail habits.
Part of the kaizen philosophy is “do today’s work today” which is really just one-piece flow thinking at a macro level (or vice versa). Typically I have between 3 and 12 e-mails in my inbox at the end of the day. This is visual control, as 12 is about as many as will display on a less than full-size Outlook window on a laptop, without scrolling. If there are many more e-mails in the inbox than that and I am putting in service overtime to get rid of them.
E-mail is inventory. It is WIP. You might not think so since it’s just electrons and e-mail doesn’t appear to “cost” anything. No direct material cost, perhaps, but there is definitely labor and overhead associated with e-mail. Labor and thought had to go into creating an e-mail message, and a software and hardware infrastructure has to support its transmission, and an IT labor has to support the hardware and the software infrastructure.
What is the cost of one e-mail message? Write it down and put it in the post to me if you know.
After examining what I did with my e-mail and how Microsoft Outlook was set up to handle incoming mail, I realized there is a very specific application of 5S at work here:
Sort the e-mails you don’t need
– Read e-mail. Act on it or delete it.
– Junk. Outlook does this for me automatically.
– Spam filters are set so that large numbers of e-mail never see the inbox.
Straighten the inbox, as in “a place for everything and everything in its place”
– Put e-mails you need to act on in the proper folder. This may be right in the inbox or separate folders.
– Sequence and prioritize for later action.
Sweep in 5S is cleaning to prevent future cleaning. E-mail 5S sweep is to get rid of e-mails and prevent them coming back.
– Block, don’t delete. Blocking the senders of spam who make it into the inbox can prevent repeat offenders.
– Unsubscribe to newsgroups or other e-mail marketing rather than deleting them.
– Don’t reply to informational e-mails with “Thanks” and certainly don’t CC everyone. If you want to say thanks do it by voice or better yet in person.
Standardize how you handle e-mail
– Check e-mail at certain times of day rather than playing whack-a-mole with every new “you’ve got mail”.
– Agree to limit who is Carbon Copied (CC) so that extra inbox material is not created.
– Spend a set amount of time on e-mail checking.
– Let people know how best to get a hold of you if it’s urgent (other than e-mail).
– Spend enough time on a message to get it done and out of the way. If you can’t don’t start it and create WIP.
– At the same time, leave some Standard WIP at the end of the day. For non-urgent items send out replies or requests at the end of the day so that you have actionable replies waiting in your inbox by the next morning or next time you set to check e-mails.
– Don’t check e-mail. This might seem counterintuitive but if we all did it we would all have less e-mail in our inboxes. Think about it.
I read a promising review of a book called Total Workday Control by Michael Linenberger that addresses your e-mail headaches. I also heard that the new operating system Windows Vista will cut down e-mail by 80% to 90%. I don’t know what this means but it sounds intriguing. But until then I have the daily sort and straighten of e-mail 5S.

  1. Andy

    August 24, 2006 - 6:43 am

    I actually disagree with the notion of not checking mail regularly and playing “whack a mole.”
    Clearly, you never want to interupt a task to read a new email, however, “single piece flow” suggests to me reading email when they come in. Often this allows be to delete junk or junk or information only email quickly and keep the box cleaner through out the day. I can avoid the end of day cleaning session that way.

  2. John Hanauer

    August 24, 2006 - 8:51 am

    That WSJ article reminds me of a short I read in Wired Magazine. It was a 46-page spread of “How To” articles. One of which was “declaring email bankruptcy.” Rather than delete all your emails and send a message to your friends about your ISP losing your email, they had suggested simply owning up and telling people that you got behind, and that if anyone had anything particularly pressing to just resend it.
    The article is here:
    A little ways down.
    Personally, I take an approach to email much like Google’s GMail. I never delete ANYTHING. I have every email I’ve ever sent or received since I installed my first version of Outlook in 1999. Why bother deleting when storage is cheap?
    I could agree that certainly there are some costs in email management, but if you’ve got a system for red-tagging that works without having to actually delete the things, then go for it. You can categorize, or just have an archive folder (like GMail) or just mark an email unread and never look at it again (this is what I do most of the time). I think that the nominal costs of saving the email will outweigh the costs of having to recreate the information later when you realize that you wish you had kept that email with those numbers you never thought you’d ever have to bother with.
    And yes, I’m still on the occasion finding reasons to pull up emails from 1999 that I literally hadn’t thought about once since the day I received it.

  3. Jon Miller

    August 24, 2006 - 9:45 am

    Thanks for your comment Andy.
    What I mean by “one piece flow” was not reading e-mails as they come in. That would be “whack a mole”.
    Instead, scan the inbox every so often during the day and identify which e-mails require action now and sort the ones you can safely set aside until later from the ones that require immediate action.
    Then work only on the e-mails that you can finish and set aside as complete (rather than as drafts or WIP), this would be my idea of “one piece flow”.
    You’re right in that you don’t want to leave a lot of WIP for the end of day cleaning session.

  4. Viki

    December 1, 2006 - 11:02 pm

    Hmmm….I kind of tend to find that our lives have got inundated …no …hit by an electronic tsunami called email ! I get at least 200 emails a day, of which some are pure hit the delete button, some are cc’s but still merit reading to keep abreast of one flow of information and then there are others that need attention whether immediately or within a short period of time. I think email is here to stay, in many ways, it is a move closer to the paperless office. I use email to store information which in the old days would have come via an interoffice memo…could be as simple as someones transfer salary details or a a plain operational issue .
    Having said that, I do find many of us, myself included get “sucked into ” the whack-a-mole syndrome and perhaps there could be an enterprise means of disciplining this. Perhaps the server could be programmed to package emails and push them into your inbox once every twenty minutes and disable the refresh button on the email service. As a means of reducing unwanted email traffic, we have recently introduced a feature by which the “reply to all” button on our Lotus Notes has been disabled, thereby forcing people to choose people to send a response to rather than literally flood the world.
    At the end of the day I guess it has to be a mixture of self discipline and smart solutions, but email rulz !!

  5. raj

    August 17, 2007 - 7:52 am

    please send songs on just in time, continuous flow, seiri

  6. sapan

    December 8, 2007 - 1:22 am

    i liked ur content… do give me some more information

  7. Anna

    March 3, 2008 - 9:41 pm

    I’m going to create some waste here in order to say “Thank you” for every single entry input.
    RE email cost, there are so many variables: 1. complexity of message information, 2. operator’s wage, 3. operator’s efficiency, and 4. computing costs (amortization/depreciation, IA, email server & electricity stipends)… I don’t know.

  8. Walter

    July 30, 2008 - 8:17 pm

    Well, I will admit to having a bad email problem – probably one of my biggest wastes from an overprocessing and muda standpoint in the office. My plan is to create some visual management around this – a type of buffer tank. A min and max when I react. Also, I shut down Outlook every other hour, more to not allow my mind to “wonder” what that next email is, or be distracted by it….

  9. gholamreza

    November 30, 2008 - 8:07 am

    I want the many articles about effect of 5s in productivity or cost reduction in hospital.
    by regards

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