In the past 7 years as a Lean Continuous Improvement (CI) practitioner, the most common question I get asked is, “So… What is it you do in your role?” Usually, in response to this question, I pause for a moment and tend to describe the technical aspects of my job, whether it be: achieving financial benefits through the delivery of projects, releasing capacity through streamlining processes, describing my role as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and the list most definitely goes on. In all cases: I’m often greeted with a blank face, disinterest, statements such as “that sounds complicated” and then the topic of conversation quickly changes to something different and more likely understood by the unaffiliated.
Look at how many products are out there now all claiming to kill the horrible, nasty, useless, time-consuming, email.
Slack, Chatter, Yammer, Hipchat – and dozens more. All claiming to ‘solve’ the problem of email.
There is even a product called Shortmail which limits all email users to 500 characters (because apparently, the issue with emails is they are too long).
But all these systems miss the point and are trying to solve the symptom not the cause. The root cause of issues with email is poor communication skills not email itself.
You don’t solve the problem of poor communication skills by giving people a different platform to communicate on – you just transfer the problem to the new system
Email is awesome if you think about it. I can write a message and send that to anyone around the world in seconds. And it’s platform agnostic. You could be on Lotus Notes, Outlook or any number of web-based services and they all work with each other! Wonderful. In an age increasingly dominated by eco-system exclusivity, what a breath of fresh air.
But we’re all drowning in it. I get people want a way of ‘reclaiming’ their work day and getting out from underneath email.
So let’s practice some Lean skills and think about WHY we’re drowning in emails.
- We receive too many emails. Why?
- We include people on a message who don’t need to read it. Why?
- We are including them just in case it becomes important later on. Why?
- We are worried about doing the wrong thing. Why?
- We lack the appropriate delegated authority or have micro-managers.
We could run this exercise over a few times and find different root causes of course – there isn’t just one.
There are all sorts of ideas and tricks on the web about how to better manager you email, but it seems to me that the real issue why you’re getting so much in the first place.
It takes seconds for someone to add your email to the address bar but in doing that – they’ve guaranteed to take up 5 minutes or more of your time in reading, filing and maybe replying to that email.
So that’s the behaviour that needs to change. And that’s why these alternatives to email become appealing – not because they offer any real solution to the problem, but because they represent change. It’s far simpler to change a system than it is to change people behaviour. Especially in larger organisations.
But that’s what really needs to happen. We need people’s behaviour to change. And it starts with thinking differently:
- Does the person I’m including on this email need to read the content?
- Would I physically write this email out 10 times to mail it to all these people?
- Why am I copying in these people?
- Would a catch up on the phone, face to face or even a quick meeting be a better use of everyone’s time?
I know one executive who’s trying to do this. They rarely respond to emails anymore, making it an unreliable medium for contacting them. The upshot of this? If it’s not important, people don’t bother emailing them (as they know they won’t read it). If it is important? They call, text or pop round to see him in person.
This works because adding someone to the CC field of an email is something we don’t even really think twice about. It’s so easy. But if you had to call that person – you wouldn’t bother them unless they really needed to know something.
Perhaps that should be the litmus test of whether someone is included on an email. Would I pick up the phone and speak to this person about this discussion? No – then don’t cc them.
It’s time we all took a little ownership about how to improve our communication skills – especially email.