LeanMail: 5S and Continuous Flow In Your Inbox

By Michael Hoffman and DJ Duarte

(Illustration from Taiichi Ohno)

If you think about it, your inbox is a business in of itself, and just like any other business, inventory represents a large avoidable cost. LeanMail employs continuous flow to avoid email inventory – one of the 7 Wastes in Lean.

Emails that are not being acted upon represent waste as inventory. Every email sitting in your inbox that could potentially be acted upon today – but is not, represents lost time and revenue. It sits there and depreciates – until it is acted upon or lost due to overproduction.

Another of the 7 wastes is the waste of motion.  When we think of the waste of motion, we usually think of physical motion, but in the digital world (the world in which many of us work) there is a lot of wasted virtual motion that is often overlooked.  This is particularly true with email management because of the micro-tasking nature of most of the work performed in the inbox. Anyone who seeks to improve “Standard Work” should be focusing on eliminating motion both physically and digitally.

Much of the searching for email falls under the waste of overprocessing. This is because the search function in Outlook and other email platforms require too many procedures to fine-tune searches instead of relying on more intuitive solutions.  Having the ability to find things quickly is true productivity improvement through stronger visual management.

The ultimate goal of email management should be to ensure that every email in your inbox that could be actioned today is either going to be executed upon today or strategically planned for another date. Further, the most important and urgent emails should always be dealt with first using the Pareto Principle.  Finally, this should be systemized to remove chances of defects and then sustained.

Here is how LeanMail applies 5S in combination with continuous flow based on takt:

  1. Sort: Remove waste unneeded mails; archive emails not requiring action; and prioritize the rest according to the Pareto Principle or 80/20 principle. (see it in action here)
  2. Straighten: Act upon the emails that take less than two minutes. Emails that require more time or that cannot be processed are given next actions (in order to avoid having to re-read the email and analyze again what needs to be done first) and deadlines according to JIT (just in time). (see it in action here)
  3. Shine: Review and make any necessary changes to priority or urgency before acting upon these emails throughout the day.
  4. Standardize: Repeat the same process periodically throughout the day.
  5. Sustain: Practice the same method every day – and every time you process email.

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