Think process is boring? Think again.
A Lean email process can actually save your inbox.
It has the potential to keep you on the ball when it comes to incoming messages and the actionable work items that come flooding in along with them.
As students of Lean and power users of email, we couldn’t help but see the connection between the methodology we were using to run our organization and the development of our original product, Kanbanize, and the challenges we faced when it came to our inbox.
At its core, the Lean approach influences the mindset with which you approach certain processes. While, in practice, a visual workflow, like the kind upon which we have based FLOW-e, can help facilitate a Lean approach, the principles of Lean thinking are actually paramount.
Let us introduce you to the basics of the Lean principles and show you how they can serve as solutions to widespread email problems that you might be experiencing also.
What is Lean Methodology?
You may know about Lean in the context of manufacturing because the approach was pioneered within the Toyota Production System.
More generally, Lean represents an emphasis on creating as much value as possible without wasting any resources in the process.
The Toyota car company and other organizations after that aimed to achieve maximum efficiency through Lean as a competitive advantage.
Lean posits that, in order to improve the existing process, the focus of the organization (or the value-creating individual) must shift to optimizing separate pieces of the process to make the entire process consistent and high quality.
The goal is to eliminate the parts of the process that are causing the creation of waste instead of value.
The parts that drag down productivity create bottlenecks and might result from any number of circumstantial factors.
For example, keeping thousands of unread emails and getting hundreds more each day can result in a serious bottleneck and is an indication of a process that can be optimized.
The principles of the Lean mindset can help us define practical steps to optimizing any inbox management structure.
The 5 Basic Principles of Lean Thinking
Value – what you do that matters to others (in business, it’s what people are willing to pay for)
Every user of the email must understand the value that he or she creates through the process of sending and replying.
Think of the email process as a service you provide to your professional or personal contacts, but also as a service you provide for yourself.
In a business, the goal of delivering value is eventually to receive maximum financial profit.
In the inbox, the benefit we reap is the instant exchange of opportunities and information.
The Value Stream – mapping out the necessary steps to producing value
A value stream represents the series of events that need to take place for a product to be manufactured and, eventually, to reach the customer.
In software, these can be the design, coding, deployment stages, and others that precede the delivery of the product to the end customer.
In our inboxes, these are the stages an email needs to pass through before it is ready to send or reply to.
For example, carrying out a task or scheduling meetings before the email response can be sent back to the sender.
Flow – how value moves through the process from start to finish
The flow refers to the way a product (the vehicle of value) moves through the value stream.
How do you know when you’ve got a healthy flow in your production process?
It is reliable, predictable, and definitely not sporadic.
For example, imagine someone who consistently checks their messages and you know you can count on them to give a timely response.
This is someone who has cultivated a healthy flow in their email process.
If they are overloaded with untracked emails, you know you might have to search for another channel to use in order to reach them.
Pull – how you make flow happen
There are two ways in which a process can move forward – by push and by pull. In traditional western manufacturing, products were pushed through the production stations of the factory based on a forecast or schedule.
Lean advises the opposite. In order to avoid accumulating inventory or making too much of something, no one needs, to pull from a batch of existing requests.
Thereby, the process swiftly produces only what is in demand.
Even though most people handle their inbox a lot like customer support (always on call), email can be transformed into a successful pull system with Lean email habits.
In order to have more control over our process, we should consider messages coming into the inbox as requests that we decide when to handle and how.
Perfection – dedication to improving the parts and the whole
A mindset emphasizing “perfection” commits to continuous improvement.
Lean dictates that the process of removing waste from different steps in the way you do things and the introduction of best practices like flow and pull is an ongoing initiative.
It doesn’t just stop. There is a consistent strive for perfection.
What Can We Do to Make Our Email Process Leaner?
In practice, applying the Lean mindset to our inbox can help transform our email into a reliable channel for new opportunities instead of a burden on our productivity.
The New York Times Bestselling author Brigid Schulte refers to Laura Stack’s (the “Productivity Pro”) rules to live by when it comes to the inbox.
She calls them the 6 Ds and they relate closely to the 5 principles of Lean.
Let’s take a look at how these pieces of actionable inbox advice make Lean email a reality.
- Discard. Just delete stuff. Messages that loiter in the inbox for months or years are essentially waste that slows you down.
- Delegate. Decide if this is really something you need to do. Are you the person that can create the most value by replying to a particular note? Maybe, there is someone with more expertise that can contribute. Optimize the value stream!
- Do it quickly. Answer emails that will take two minutes or less right away. Keep the flow moving…
- Date. Give yourself a deadline for taking action.
- Drawer. File away stuff you’ve taken action on, but may want to refer to.
- Deter. Unsubscribe from things to prevent useless things from piling up and hiding what is actually relevant. The latter results in a push process, which can become extremely overwhelming.
Choose Lean Email Inbox for Maximum Efficiency
Implementing even just half of these best practices can bring you closer to a Lean email process and inbox hero status.
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