Email is Not a Process
Reevaluating the way we use email to become more effective
Most families have those colorful and influential members who everyone remembers. Mine were my father, Dick, and my grandmother, Betty. Between them they had many “isms” or sayings they would use to make their point. Some of my favorites include:
- “You have champagne taste on a beer pocketbook.”
- “You have two ears and one mouth. What do you suppose you should do more of?”
- “Use your head for something besides a hat rack.”
I have a few of my own “isms” that I’ve used with my teams over the years, usually to point out the thought processes that inhibit companies from becoming more efficient and effective. At the top of that list is: “Email is not a process.”
To make this clear, let’s look at a definition of email:
Email is a system for sending messages, distributed by electronic means from one computer user to one or more recipients via telecommunication links using dedicated software.
Now let’s look at a definition of process:
A series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end. Processes are continuous, measurable and produce a result.
When you compare these two definitions, there isn’t much in common except that sending an email might be considered an action. An email notification could be part of a process, but the email itself isn’t the process.
Too often when documenting processes with clients, they describe their process as a series of email communications to groups of people. The desired result depends on purposeful action taken by a person, and the email chain itself is just a communication channel to notify others that they have (or have not) taken the desired action. There are no validations that the result is actually achieved, and there’s no way to measure the time it takes to complete. Also, there isn’t a way to verify that each step has been completed before the next one starts. In other words, email is not a process.
To illustrate, let’s look at an employee status change. You have an employee who is due to go on military leave, and you need to notify the appropriate departments. At a minimum, you update the system to reflect the leave of absence status, and you make arrangements to cover the job duties during the absence. Most companies have documentation to complete that’s emailed to a group of people. This single email generates several return emails — I call these “email babies” — asking for additional information or replying that the changes were made. People can miss these emails or forget them. And if no one takes action, the company is at risk because the employee may still be listed as active when that’s not the case.
With an email chain, you don’t really know if the right people took the necessary action, nor do you know how long it took to complete associated tasks. This email chain may — or may not — have achieved the desired result, but the one thing it certainly did was clog up a lot of people’s email inboxes.
As you look at your internal processes, even for seemingly small tasks, think about how you’re accomplishing them. Ask yourself:
- What is the desired result?
- In what time frame should it be accomplished?
- How can I track the actions that have been completed?
- How do I eliminate potential failure points?
- What steps are essential to the result and what steps can be eliminated?
I find the best way to see the big-picture process is to draw it on a white board. Often the picture tells the story and clearly shows where you can reduce waste and improve results.
So, while the “isms” like those from Dick and Betty are classic and will never die, don’t forget the “isms” you may not have heard as a kid, especially this one: “Email is not a process.”