Bring efficiency to where you do business: the inbox.

Tracy Parks — №18 with Scott Belsky

I’d like you to think differently about your email for a moment. Think of your email program as a stand-alone work environment, much like you would a physical office. After all, it is where work gets done, transactions take place, decisions are made, and projects are managed. It’s a customer service center, a purchasing, shipping, and tracking center. Email is used for delegation, supervision, and work assignments; it’s where records are created, stored, and hopefully disposed of. It’s also a file cabinet, a reference room, and, of course, it’s the “mail” room!

It’s estimated that an email recipient will access a single email seven(!) times before action is taken and the email is processed in full. As a result, email inboxes are jammed with read and unread email with the average inbox containing over 3000 messages.

Imagine your email at inbox zero: your messages are sorted and set in folders, action items are flagged and ready to be addressed, and boilerplate templates are in place to answer stock email inquiries; you are poised to get in and out of email so you can move on to your best work. How? Consider a twist on an improvement approach recognized as Lean Office and an element of Lean Office known as 5S.

What is Lean Office?

Lean Office is a framework and a methodology centered on improving the workplace to make it more efficient, productive and profitable. Within that framework is a 5-step process for organizing and standardizing the workplace. Each phase is identified with a Japanese word beginning with the letter “S” and translated in English to Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain.

  1. Sort is about separating the useful from the unnecessary, de-cluttering, purging, and making decisions about what’s currently important and what’s not.

  2. Set focuses on identifying a dedicated place for everything necessary to support current work.

  3. Shine is about taking steps to promote a clean, obstacle-free and supportive work environment.

  4. Standardize focuses on ways to improve workplace processes with automation and visual controls.

  5. Sustain is purposed toward taking the improvements that 5S has produced and keeping them, and the efficiencies they produced, moving forward.

Eliminating waste

The concept of Muda (the Japanese word for waste) plays a front and center role in Lean Office, helping to identify steps or actions in workflow which do not add value. The seven common wastes in office processes include re-work, waiting, unnecessary motion, over-processing, storage or inventory issues, downtime, and unnecessary inspection.

For most of us, it’s easy to recognize waste and to imagine how the 5S approach would yield tangible results in a physical office. It clears the clutter, finding a place for everything and streamlining and standardizing processes, but what about the waste in your email “office”?

Applying 5S to the email office

Start by examining how work moves through your email office. Watch for places in need of improvement and try sketching out the flow of your information. Then:

  1. Sort

    Remove the unnecessary from the necessary as it pertains to highest priority work and the work you do right now. Archive non-current email or offload email to a back-up drive; delete as much as possible. Sort high noise, low value email from your messages, then move your work ideas, goals, and objectives forward.

  2. Set

    Establish a place for everything related to your current work. Reduce and unify email storage folders; label them in meaningful ways. Create five to seven high-level master folders that reflect your work. If you could chunk your information into five areas, what would they be? Use the GTD approach or create a digital tickler file to manage actions related to email.

  3. Start “shining” your email by uncovering and eliminating toxic waste

    Create a mental checklist to run through prior to opening file attachments, a procedure for inspecting hyperlinks to confirm site legitimacy and for avoiding the dangers of linking to a site masquerading as something legit. Create effective filters and rules, unsubscribe from newsletters or review them in a digest form, and unsubscribe instantly using a tool like unrollme.

  4. Standardize

    Automate processing and establish “Best Practice” procedures. Leverage tools built in to your email program like rules, filters, quick parts, auto text, canned responses, templates, and signature lines. Document standard sequences.

  5. Sustain the improvements that 5S produces.

    Review, tweak, and improve. Find ways to measure improvement and to sustain small changes. Schedule regular time to repeat the sort, set, shine, and standardizing process.

Measuring change

Capture preliminary metrics prior to your 5S Email initiative, such as the number of emails you receive each day, or actually process. What number of emails require reply, how many times do you check email, and how many emails are in your inbox now? How much storage space do you presently utilize and how many folders exist in your email folder structure? These initial metrics provide a reality check as well as a tool to encourage ongoing improvement, one of the major tenets of Lean.

Getting started

What area of email management do you find the most challenging? Is it converting emails to tasks, email volume, sorting, organizing, or prioritizing? Perhaps it’s managing folders, clearing the obsolete, finding what you need when you need it. Perhaps it’s all of the above? The beauty of the 5S approach is that all of these areas will indeed be addressed and optimized, as one small improvement builds upon another. Small, incremental improvement will reap great rewards.

Photo: Flickr/ Panda Evans CC BY-NC 2.0

Tracy parks

Tracy Parks

Tracy Parks is the founder of Simplicated provides services, training, and coaching to help busy professionals clear clutter and gain clarity in order to effectively manage their time, space, and information. She is focused on outcomes to optimize time and productivity, reduce stress, and increase collaboration with a strong focus towards lean office approaches to streamline workflow. She works across industries in the public/private sector as a presenter, speaker, trainer, consultant, and coach to the digitally overwhelmed.

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