Buying a bigger pair of pants will NOT solve your weight problem.


by Dan Markovitz

Whew! Just in case you panicked at the thought of not having access to email on your upcoming flight to Slippery Rock, JetBlue has come to the rescue with in-flight internet access. You'll never again have to endure five whole unconnected hours without riveting messages from the CEO informing you that his daughter's Girl Scout cookies are on sale in his office.

Presumably, JetBlue's new service will be welcomed as a godsend by road warriors who break out in hives at the terrifying prospect of a few hours in the air without email. These folks live with some sort of imagined corporate armageddon looming over them if they can't respond to an email instantaneously, or at least within 19 seconds. To these poor wretches, I can only say: get over it. Your firm will not collapse like a dying star, nor will your clients wither away for lack of your expert ministrations. And if you really are that vital, well, you probably shouldn't be getting on a plane (at least not a commercial plane) in the first place.

JetBlue's service will also surely be welcomed by those folks who figure with an extra four or five hours of solid time paddling around in Outlook, they can really make some progress on the 639 unread messages languishing in their inboxes, as well as the other 281 messages that have been read, but need a response. To these lost souls, I can only recycle my favorite expression these days: buying a bigger pair of pants will NOT solve your weight problem. If the electronic seams of your email waistband are groaning, an extra five hours or fifty hours won't make a difference.

The problem is the lack of a decent process for handling email, not a lack of time to handle it. It's classic non-lean thinking: throw more resources at the problem by buying newer, bigger machines. This approach invariably fails to produce the desired productivity gains because the underlying process is dysfunctional.

The same is true of adding an extra few hours to your day of reading and writing email. The extra time isn't going to help you get on top of your email. It will only compound the problem. The lean approach is to improve the underlying process by which you manage email.

I've written about how to reduce the volume of email you suffer with here and here, and Merlin Mann has an excellent series of posts on how to get to inbox zero here.

Rather than waste an additional five hours getting yourself even farther behind, I'd suggest using that time on the plane to learn the lean process of handling email and finally take care of the stuff that's moldering away in your inbox. And treat yourself to an extra bag of Oreos while you're at it.

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Dan Markovitz
Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that radically improves operational speed and efficiency by applying lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures on A3 thinking at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Dan is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences, and has consulted to organizations as diverse as Camelbak, Clif Bar, Abbott Vascular, WL Gore & Associates, Intel, the City of Menlo Park, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has also published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines. All of these articles are available for download on the Resources page. Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company. Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.


  1. A friend of mine once asked a friend of his, who is now a VP at a major auto company, “Tom, don’t you ever answer your voice mail?”

    He related the story about how, during a 70 mile drive, he was listening to his phone messages and leaving replies. When he got to his destination, he had more unheard messages then when he had started.

    I can remember back to the days of the paper in box and pink phone slips being the only available technology. As part of the hiring selection process, the candidate had to pass an in box prioritization test – you get back from a two week’s vacation (no Blackberry or cell phone back then) and need to go through the correspondence and prioritize your actions.

    This is still a usefull skill!

  2. I used to work with a fellow, now one of my closest friends. He used to be a Europe and North Africa Director of a Tier 1 prior to us meeting.

    One day I arrived at work to find an engineer and he asked me where this person was as they had a meeting. I explained that I thought that this was unlikely as my friend was in Ireland and he and I were in south east England.

    He explained that he’d spoke to him on the phone and that it was all arranged.

    Knowing the individual concerned I asked whether he’d confirmed that and he said yes.

    I asked how and he responded that he’d done so via email.

    I then pointed out that the person concerned had worked there for 9 months, ran the biggest operation on site to the tune of $100m and that he did not know how to and had never accessed an email since the day he arrived.

    I’d note that 4 years on and after 10 years in industry and 4 years in health care that individual is now a European director of a Dow Jones company and is works in more or less the same way now that he worked then.

    This is the old joke, you set your self up with 3 in-boxes. The first is the day it arrives, the second is where it is moved to after 7 days, after 14 you move it to a third and after a further 7 if no one asks you about it you file it under T for trash………

    Most mail eventually ends up being filed with no one enquiring after it……

  3. Andrew,

    Your point about the lack of value of most incoming mail is borne out by a recent WSJ survey on email. 57% of respondents said that a quarter or less of their daily email had any value. (You can see the results and my comments on my blog here:

  4. Having had an email address of some sort since July 1993 I can attest that over all those years I can not recall having sent, or received, any email which lead directly to a huge increase in sales, revenues or profits for any of my endeavors.

    I do recall, however, an endless stream of poorly composed and grammatically embarrassing communications- sent and received- which could have been better handled with a quick phone call.

    Many folks these days seem to be confusing email volume with productivity. Our mining company’s drive to lean processes leaves very little space on stage for demonstrations of one’s Coefficient of Blackberry Clackitivity.


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