Lean Office

The e-mail gemba

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

There is a lot to like about e-mail. Without its widespread adoption starting about 15 years ago I would not have kept in touch with many old friends. I can still remember writing letters, by hand, and waiting… E-mail has allowed me to make new friendships all over the world, although many of them I rarely or never meet in person. E-mail has enabled me to give and receive advice freely and easily. We can even say that e-mail is “lean”. We tap out short messages or instructions during waiting time in airports, trains taxis, or surreptitiously during in low value-add meetings. A quick message by e-mail can avoid minutes of “overhead” banter that would be required with the recipient of the message during voice conversation. When you send e-mail, you are never on hold. Elimination of waiting waste must be a good thing. But this week I learned some humbling lessons about the limitations of e-mail. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that e-mail communication is not as effective as we think.

What we need is oee-mail. Not being funny, we should measure and improve the equivalents of the overall equipment effectiveness of e-mail. OEE is a measure of whether equipment runs at the speed, quality and availability that it is designed to do. Often when we measure OEE people are shocked that the number they expect to be at the 80%+ range is well under 40%. I suspect the same may be true for e-mail.

OEE is Availability x Performance x Quality such that a process available 90% of the time when needed, operating at 90% of the design speed and yielding 95% quality will only give you a stunning 76.95% effectiveness. If we can’t send e-mails 10% of the time when we want because we are driving (availability), or the recipient doesn’t read your e-mail (availability), or you are on vacation when the reply arrives (availability), or if we type slower than we speak (performance) or if the computer is slow (performance), and if the message contains errors or is simply not clear (quality), the overall e-mail effectiveness is lower than 100%. Measure these things and be shocked.

Generally we can correct and clarify real-time communication much more easily than e-mail. But this is not to say phone or face to face is flawless. Voice communication by phone may have availability, performance and quality issues also. Face to face communication is not always possible, and can also contain errors. But when we use e-mail as a substitute for going to see the person, or calling the person on the phone we will be less effective than we could for other more important reasons. According to psychologists the vast majority of communication is body language and tone of voice, not the actual words we use. E-mail can give us only the words. Telephone conversations give us only tone of voice and words. It’s very hard to show genuine respect through e-mail, and respect is genuinely important in human communication.

Communication is essential in getting anything done. Ergo, showing respect is important in getting anything done.

What are the common courtesies of e-mail? None. I’ve found none. None that are consistently and widely observed at least. We don’t respond fully to direct queries made by colleagues and friends by e-mail. We send e-mails at all hours, with or without salutations, with or without signing one’s name, with or without proof reading the message, with CAPS and !!! to express ourselves in words devoid of human expression, with or without consideration of formatting and readability, we CC the world and Reply to All as if shouting ever louder to be heard above the e-mail din. We are not showing respect for the medium or the person when do we this. Through e-mail we treat people in ways we never would face to face.

Perhaps someone clever will create an iPhone app called AddRespect which does all of the missing bits above and sends out a letter as if it was dictated to typist in the 1950s.
There is an addictively delicious fruit that grows on a weed in the Northwest part of the USA in which I make my home. This weed grows rapidly and will take over all space occupied by other vegetation if not culled back. This fruit is the blackberry. I have the electronic version of this fruit in my pocket or in my hand much of the time. What apt naming.

We wouldn’t get nearly as much work done without e-mail, right? In fact many of you are reading this by e-mail right now, and thank you. Society today could never part with e-mail and we shouldn’t go backwards. What we should do is to find the gaps and continue to kaizen how we communicate by going to the gemba.

What is the e-mail gemba? It is the heart of the person you are trying to reach. We need to get as close to this place as possible if we want to add value to the relationship. Facial expression, tone of voice, genuine expression of interest in the well-being of the other person and their family, lacking body language (emoticons notwithstanding), the disconnection between the time of day and time zone of the sender and receiver of the message – there are so many important ways that we communicate non-verbally and these are missing from e-mail. We all have the key to the door that opens the e-mail gemba. Why don’t we use it?

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