Email has become an all too convenient way to communicate. Some much so for many of us that our inboxes are overflowing with new messages. There have been hundreds of productivity related strategies written about for dealing with email. I have even shared some of those myself. There must be a better way.
In Lean manufacturing we utilize 5s to improve the workplace organization. 5s is a systematic method of identifying, organizing, cleaning, maintaining, and improving your workspace. It is often referred to as the foundation or building block of a Lean transformation and aims to create a structured and disciplined approach to continuous improvement.
In this post I am going to show you how you can use these same concepts that you use to manage your workspace to save your inbox.
Step 1: Sort
First things first, it’s time to get rid of all of the messages that are old and obsolete. Be aggressive in this step. Don’t keep messages that you know will never be returned. If there are attachments that need to be saved or printed, do so now. Get rid of as much as you can.
Step 2: Set-in order
Straighten the inbox, as in "a place for everything and everything in its place." Find a place for all of your e-mails. The easiest and most obvious way is to create folders based on tasks or other buckets of work where emails can be neatly filed for future use. Put e-mails you need to act on in the proper folder. The goal is to remove as much from your inbox as possible.
Step 3: Shine
Since we’re talking about computer applications, there really isn’t the necessary cleaning activities that would be required in a physical workspace. Shine in 5S is cleaning to prevent future cleaning. E-mail 5S shine is to get rid of e-mails and prevent them coming back. Block spammers who make it into your inbox to 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.
Step 4: Standardize
Standardize how you handle e-mail. This step is critically important as you will need to set rules for yourself to keep your e-mail account clean. Some rules you may consider:
- Set a maximum number of e-mails in your inbox and once that number is exceeded, complete another sorting and sifting cycle.
- Check e-mail at certain times of day rather than playing whack-a-mole with every new "you've got mail".
- Spend a set amount of time on e-mail checking.
- Agree to limit who is Carbon Copied (CC) so that extra inbox material is not created.
Step 5: Sustain
The final step in the process is setting up a quick audit process to make certain your rules are being followed and your account is staying in good shape. In the beginning, this audit may need to be more frequent to force the discipline to adhere. Overtime, it will become a learned way of working and you will be the envy of all your coworkers.
By applying 5S, the management of emails can be simplified and restructured. This will enable you to add value to your day and minimize the time spent on dealing with emails. You will no longer look at your e-mail workspace with dread and you will be far more responsive in replying to other’s requests. At the very least, this exercise is a great way to apply one of the cornerstone Lean tools to the knowledge world. Give it a try.