Everyday Lean – Email Inventory


For the first installment of the Everyday Lean series, I thought I would stay with the email theme that originally got me started thinking down this path. Email is a part of just about everyone's modern workday. There are many tips and tricks out there that offer remedies for dealing with the deluge of email flooding inboxes on a daily basis. I also believe that lean principles, if applied to email, can help maintain value in this communication tool.

Try to practice continuous flow – process work as it needs to be done. All those unread notes in your inbox are an inventory of messages that you have yet to process. Worse yet, problems may not be brought to the surface and given the attention they deserve. To help guide this, you may want to set a daily maximum of messages left in your inbox at the end of each day.

Reply to all messages as soon as you read them. Act on them. Do what needs to be done to reply – don't leave a pile of messages that you have yet to respond to in your in-box. This becomes nothing more than a task list that you have to batch process some other time. This creates longer lead times for those waiting for a response…

Recognize that email is not the most effective form of communication in many instances. One of the inherent problems with email is there is no immediate feedback. The sender is making a request, but does not know if the request has been received, or understood. Encourage alternate forms of communication for issues that require immediate attention – however keep in mind that all issues are important – small problems are generally systemic in nature and require greater attention and focus to resolve than the big issue of the day.

Ideally, your organization should have a Communication Plan. This shared plan would detail what types of information should be communicated in what format. The goal here is to create a SINGLE PATH for certain types of information. This would provide the same benefit as implementing a pull cord to stop the line on assembly processes. This is the single path of communication used to flag a problem and call for help on the line. Any other method for communicating a problem is not accepted because it will not illicit the same response and attention.

The last point I want to make about email is that most messages are transient. It's easy to fall into the trap of keeping old messages in personal folders just in case you might need them later. Recognize that this information, even if there is value in retaining it, will not do anything for you or anyone else in your organization while it sits on your hard drive. It will likely be difficult and time consuming to search for and call up an old note when looking for information that you know you saved ‘somewhere'. Instead, determine where and how information should be kept, which records should be retained and archived and follow a standard process for maintaining this information.

As with everything posted, particularly in the of posts from the Everyday Lean series, I encourage everyone to participate in discussions by adding your own comments, references or experiences.

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Luke Van Dongen
Luke, an auto industry engineering veteran, blogged here from 2005 to 2006.


  1. I just read a book called Getting Things Done. It’s been around for a while, but it was new to me. The author wholly agrees with processing the inbox as the e-mails arrive (as do I – it makes a huge difference in productivity and psyche!)

    Most of the newer e-mail systems – gMail is one – let you search for archived messages regardless of where they are “filed”. To me, filing messages into folders is totally NVA, even if I may use the information someday. If the message requires action, I list the action and drive on. After that I archive the message in a single folder. If it’s ever needed again (unlikely), I query on the relevant term and let the system create the folder on the fly. I suppose the assumption there is that I know what term to query.

    The author also treats action items you try to remember as a type of mental rework. He advocates using a written system to drive the sequence of actions and freeing up your “RAM” for higher level tasks.

    Does anyone have what they consider a “lean” personal organizational system?

  2. JP, I recently read about a personal organization system that I found very clever.
    It is useful for those of us who get overwhelmed on Mondays in front of a “to do” list longer than what any human being can handle.

    I have a tendency to work a little bit on everything on such a list, which many times does not lead to the completion of a full project by the end of the week.

    The “ideator” of the system said that he writes two or three of the items in his master “to do” list on a flash card on Monday morning.

    Then, he puts the card on a clip that hangs from his computer. Each time that he diverts his attention to some other issue, he looks at the card and tries to get his attention back on working only on these few items.

    Once finished with those items, the next morning he writes down another flashing card and so on.

    It does seem to me like this is a simple application of a Kanban!


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