Improving Email Communications

The Radicati Group estimated that in 2010 the number of emails sent per day was around 294 billion. This means that more than 2.8 million emails were sent every second by about 1.9 billion email users (almost 30% of the world’s population).

Given this high number of users and email transmissions, one would think that writing, sending, and responding to emails would be a simple act. However, this is not so. Clarity and brevity in email communication is still lacking. Bill Jensen, author of Simplicity, suggests that there is a connection between behavioural communication and “clear” communication. He says that to be effective, communication must convey the following:

  • Connection. There must be a connection to the recipient’s workload (“how is the message relevant to what I do?”)
  • Lists. The email must list action steps (“what, specifically, should I do?”)
  • Expectations. The expectations for success need to be clear (“what do success and failure look like?”)
  • Ability. The ability to achieve success must be demonstrated (“what tools and support are available?”)
  • Return. The return to the person must be obvious (“what’s in it for me?”)

However, even if you do meet all of the above criteria in your messages, there are still things that occur that can drive your recipient “nuts.” Here are some examples of things to avoid in your email practices.

  1. Reply to all. CYA (cover your butt) is a lazy excuse for hitting the Reply to All button. Does your email really need to be sent to all? Think before you act.
  2. Complex issues. Trying to solve complex messages by email does not work. If it is a complex issue that perhaps started as not-so-complex, pick up the phone or call an in-person meeting.
  3. Subject lines. Does your subject line match the body of your email? This has got to be one of the most exasperating complaints about email. Using an old message to compose a new message is ineffective and not changing the subject line is unforgivable. Subject lines need to be concise and accurate because subject lines aid filing and information retrieval.
  4. Cancellations. If you need to cancel a meeting last minute, do so by telephone. Do not email. Do not text. This is a courtesy we would all do well to observe.
  5. Your poor planning does not constitute my emergency. You know the types – they forgot to get something completed and now all of a sudden, there’s an “urgent” email demanding your attention. And if the deadline isn’t met, the finger is pointed at you because they were “waiting” on you to complete a piece of the project.
  6. ALL CAPS or underlines. Do not use all capitalization in email messages because it appears as if you’re shouting. And don’t use underline because it may appear to be a hyperlink.
  7. Original messages missing. Replying to messages and not returning the original thread creates more work for the recipient who is now trying to remember what they wrote. This hinders productivity. Always return the full message thread.
  8. No signature lines. Always include your full signature on email messages. This includes your name, title, organization, address, and phone numbers. This saves time for the recipient in case they want to call you or send you “real” mail.
  9. Too many attachments. If you’re sending a lot of attachments, get permission before doing so or combine the attachments into one document. Or use an email attachment service such as You Send It where only a link will be provided, thus saving space.
  10. Work email abuse. Sometimes people send non-work related email from their work email address. This is not a good practice, since the majority of big companies monitor email.

When writing your next email, keep in mind the above guidelines. And above all else, use common sense and be disciplined in delivering clear and robust messages in as little space as possible.

Presenting Less for More Conversation

“Death by PowerPoint” is still alive and well, unfortunately. I continue to attend presentations where the presenter insists on crowding onto slides everything that they feel needs to be said within their allotted schedule. The result is minimal conversation during the presentation and, perhaps a blessing, the audience forgets the presentation as soon as it’s over.

Flipping through slide-after-slide to get your point across does not engage your audience. And it does very little to improve their productivity. The test of a great PowerPoint presentation is not measured by the number or quality of your slides. It is measured by changes in your audience’s conversation. 

Whether you’re an executive, manager, or employee, you are likely exposed to facts and figures every day. Sitting through a slide presentation with more of the same can be mind-numbing. If you’re getting ready to create and present using PowerPoint, consider this: Your audience does not need 50 slides in the next ten minutes. What they need is conversation that will help them make sense of what you’re presenting. You need to engage not only logic, but emotions, as well. 

Several years ago, I attended a project status presentation by a department head. There are two things that I remember about that presentation. First, the slides were crowded with tables, graphs and numbers. Second, only one person asked a question at the end of the presentation (I don’t remember the question). Was this presentation powerful? Not in the slightest. Was it memorable? Well, I remember the effects of the presentation (eye strain, boring, audience silence), but I don’t remember the presentation itself. 

This particular presentation, while it contained logic (despite the busy slides) was missing emotion. The presenter and his slideshow did not allow the audience time to absorb or discuss any of his points. In fact, he insisted that we hold questions until the end of the presentation! He did not engage us at an emotional level and that’s why the presentation was promptly forgotten. 

When you prepare your next PowerPoint presentation, follow these four rules: 

  1. NEVER put more than six words on a slide. If you need more words, use a picture instead.
  2. Stay away from the animated features in PowerPoint. The spins, drop-ins, transitions, etc. only serve to distract the audience. They don’t add value to the overall presentation.
  3. If using images, use real photos or download professional images from sites such as clipart.com or corbis.com. Remember: If you are preparing a professional presentation, use professional images.
  4. If using sounds during presentations (and on specific slides), download sounds and music from CDs. A nice effect that I like to use is playing soft music on the first slide while the audience arrives for the presentation. The Proustian effect can be quite amazing.

And when you present, consider this:

  • To engage your audience during your presentation, tell them that you’ll give them a detailed handout of your presentation AFTER the presentation. Distributing it before the presentation will only serve to distract your audience from the presentation.
  • Do not hand out your PowerPoint presentation slides, not even the “Notes” pages. Why? Because they do not contain your presentation and the recipient may misinterpret information on the slides. Bullet points on slides are just the “cues” you used when speaking about the points.
  • Do not repeat the words printed on your slides. People can read. Instead, add to those words by providing clarity and a deeper explanation of the subject matter. Use examples and real life stories to make the point.

Audiences will tolerate your logic as you present it in PowerPoint, but it’s the conversation during presentations that will allow them to draw their own conclusions. Whether you’re selling or telling, powerful conversation is a sure way for your audience to engage in and remember your presentation.

In God we Trust, for Everything Else There’s Data

Statistics are all about data. But did you know that data can be manipulated to provide you with the results that you thought you should have had in the first place? Don’t get me wrong. I believe data is very important. Without it, we’d be hard pressed to provide evidence in specific situations. However, if data is not collected in a controlled manner, the data can be useless. Let me explain.

To collect data, one needs to first understand the purpose for doing so. And in business settings, the place to start is to identify low performing processes. Collecting data on these processes will provide you with the evidence you need to identify areas in the process that need improving. Here are some basic steps to help you with your data collection plan. 

  1. Measure. Identify what you will measure. Is it speed of order entry, quality of service, number of customer complaints, time to process help desk alerts, etc.? Be specific.
  2. Type of Measure. This relates to what you are measuring and can also tell you when you have enough data. For instance, if you’re measuring quality of service, you will possibly measure one or two inputs to the service plus two or three outputs of the service as well as one process measure. The key is to focus on the vital few versus the useful many. Usually, only two or three items will account for over 80% of what is important to the customer; and that’s what needs to be measured.
  3. Type of data. This relates to either discrete or continuous data. Generally, continuous data is the preferred type of data to collect because it gives you information about magnitude. Examples of continuous data are time and temperature.
  4. Operational definition. This is important to determine exactly when data collection starts and stops. If measuring time to complete order entry, when do you start your timer and when do you stop? Is it when the order is received by the order entry clerk or is it when the order is made by the customer? You can see how being precise in this case will enable you to collect the correct data.

There are other considerations in a data collection plan, but the above four considerations are key to ensuring that the data you collect serves the purposes for which it is intended. Other considerations when collecting data for process improvement purposes includes identifying specifications (i.e., the least acceptable measure in the process such as 30 minutes is the upper limit for order entry) and targets (i.e., what customers would consider ideal – this is not always achievable, but it’s good to have stretch goals).

When collecting data, ensure that you have good measurements. This means that data should be easy to understand, they are important to the customer (either directly or indirectly), and the data motivates people to action.

 

The Black Holes of Communication

What is your top timewaster? Meetings? Communication? Micromanagers? You may be surprised to know that activities relating to communication typically cost people about two hours of wasted time every day. If you work an average eight-hour day, that’s 25% of your day gone to waste because of poor or mismanaged communication.

The causes of communication problems can be many, but it comes down to this – your ability to communicate. If you are unable to say “no,” “stop,” or ask the all-important “why” question, you are wasting time every day. Let me give you an example relating to meetings.

Most people go to meetings because they’re “supposed to” go to them. Why? To show that they’re a good employee? Nonsense! You can respectfully decline to attend meetings when the meeting adds no value to your work or you are unable to contribute value to the topic. If either of these apply, then decline the invitation with your reasons for doing so.

Email is another example. How often do you deal with communication from others when someone else should be dealing with it? Sometimes, we feel it’s the “polite” thing to do to take care of a request because it came to us, but that’s the wrong approach. Advise the sender that you aren’t able to assist them and in that same response to them, copy the person who can. There. You’ve just done double duty in one note.

And what about communicating to others? How are your communication skills? Do you say what you mean or do you skirt the issue? Be direct with your messaging. This saves time not only for you, but also for the recipient.

I recently blogged about micromanaging. This is an area where open and honest communication can really help eliminate timewasting. Sometimes the micromanager doesn’t even know that they’re micromanaging, let alone that they’re contributing to huge timewasting. If you’re under the thumb of a micromanager, call a time out and invite your micromanager to coffee. Point out how his/her micromanaging is impacting your work. You’ll both be better off because of the conversation.

To improve your productivity and gain time in your day, eliminate the black holes of communication by asking more questions (“why” is a powerful antidote), saying “no” more often (e.g., meetings), and speaking up about things that don’t feel right. Contrary to the popular song “Silence is Golden,” silence is not golden if it contributes to wasted time and energy.

Turning Efficiency into Power

Time and again, I have spoken about the need for efficient processes and systems to enable employees to do their best. It’s not enough to do something right once and then forget about it. If the process or system isn’t set up to sustain efficient activity in the first place, then waste is (and will be) prevalent.

Based on a survey of 10,000 individuals in more than 400 companies, as reported by Bill Jensen, author of Simplicity, individuals rated their company’s ability to compete on clarity (helping individuals work smarter, not harder), navigation (helping individuals find who or what they need), fulfillment of basics (such as communication and knowledge management), usability (company’s effectiveness in all that it designs to help people get tasks done), speed (helping employees to work in a 24/7 ever-faster world), and their respect for employees’ time. Overall, four or more of these elements were reported as unfavourable by 67% of respondents, while only 19% reported four or more as favourable.

To put this into perspective, Jensen says that if you are an executive in a company of 100 employees, then:

  • 52 employees have to go back to their manager again and again to figure out what they’re supposed to do
  • 72 can’t find what they need for them to do their best
  • 75 are filling in the blanks for themselves on task/goal communication
  • 81 think their son’s computer game console works better than the tools you supply
  • 86 think you are like email when it comes to pushing speed down the chain of command, but you’re snail mail when it comes to acting on employee feedback
  • 88 have been trained by the company to guard their time, or at least to be dubious and have second thoughts, or hang back when asked to give more of it

Improving efficiency and effectiveness in organizations can improve employee engagement as well as speed of delivery of products/service to customers. By improving efficiency, all of the above numbers will decrease dramatically, usually by as much as 20% first time through the process. But it’s not all about process.

Being a Lean organization means much more than being efficient and effective. It means that the organization is healthy, responsive, focused, and transforming. A Lean organization exudes power and not merely a set of tools and techniques. But without the baseline tools and techniques to support the organization, getting to power is an impossible feat. It’s like trying to boil the ocean without any heat.

Leaving is Sometimes the Only Way to Send a Message

It was one of those days. You have a lot of work to get through and you have everything slotted, prioritized, sorted, itemized, allocated, dissected, trisected, and falling into place quite nicely. Like a well-oiled machine. Then it happens: The one appointment in your day where you’re kept waiting, waiting, and waiting some more. It happened to me today.

For those of us who believe in and rely on schedules and priorities to make our lives flow smoothly, we have no room or patience for those who abuse our valuable time. My week was going very well, meetings held, appointments kept, errands accomplished; generally, everything was flowing as it should until a medical appointment made me stop.

I won’t use the doctor’s name, but he is an ophthalmologist (try saying that three times fast without tripping over your tongue). My appointment was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and I was told that I would need a driver, since my eyes will be dilated (kind of like eyes on drugs, but without the high). No problem. I arranged for a driver and arrived for my appointment at 1:15 p.m. I always like to be early instead of running in last minute.

There were a couple of people in the waiting room when I arrived, so I took a seat and waited. And waited. And waited. At 2:00 p.m., I went to the receptionist and asked politely if I’ll be seeing the doctor soon, given that my appointment was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. She wasn’t sure, but she assured me that it wouldn’t be too much longer.

A few minutes after 2:00 p.m., a nice young lady called my name and took me to a room where we spent about 10 minutes running some eye tests. Then it was down the hall where I was asked to wait in another waiting area because no exam room was available.

At 2:30, I was taken into an exam room and told that the doctor will be in shortly. I’m not sure what “shortly” means to her, but to me it means within about five minutes, with a stretch, maybe 10 minutes. Again, I waited, somewhat patiently, but at 2:50, I walked out of the exam room to the receptionist’s station and told her I was leaving because I felt it was disrespectful of my time to be asked to an appointment at 1:30 and have to wait almost 90 minutes with no doctor in sight. In my book, it just doesn’t work that way.

I vowed to myself to never return to that clinic, but a happy footnote caught me by surprise. That evening, the doctor in question telephoned and apologized for my wait. Ironically, his process and workflow predicament got snagged during my appointment time and as the Queen of Lean, I didn’t let him off the hook that easily.

Simple fixes like ensuring reception staff communicates correct information both pre and during appointment times will go a long way to improving customer (pateint) relationships. Now we’ll just need to work on helping the doctor process his patients more efficiently. The result will be a win-win for all with no accumulated patient backlog. Happy patients. Happy doctor. Happy staff. Who can argue with that?

 

Accelerating Project Success

Ahh…the project. Who among us has never had to do one? No matter what line of work we’re in, we all have at one time and/or another engaged in projects. Anything from planning an event such as a small dinner gathering to building infrastructure like bridges and highways comes under the purview of a project. But did you know that the success of projects is determined in large part by the amount and quality of project planning?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge defines a project plan as “a formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” However, there are many occasions when a “formal, approved document” may seem over-the-top (e.g., dinner party planning). But no matter the size of the project, having some type of documentation to guide you through execution is recommended.

Consider this. Successful projects can typically be traced back to planning work that can take up to 80% of the project manager’s (and others’) time. What, you ask? When do they have time to actually execute the plan? You may be surprised to learn that the process of planning projects touches all nine areas of project knowledge control areas, whereas the execution process covers only five areas. In fact, of the five project processes (initiation, planning, execution, control, and closing), only initiation and closing have less steps than execution.

How do you make sure you have a fool-proof project plan? Here are five considerations:

  1. Define the purpose. Why are you doing the project in the first place? If you don’t know why, then you won’t know how to plan for the project, either. Knowing the purpose will help you define what success looks and feels like for the project.
  2. Allow freedom to happen, but don’t lose control. Identify what needs to be in place (e.g., policies, procedures, standards) to ensure project success. Then put this in place and trust your project team to move the project forward.
  3. Engage your team. Use brainstorming to fill in the gaps in your plan. Mind mapping used during brainstorming allows everyone to “see” the gaps and makes them easier to fill. A picture is worth more than a thousand words.
  4. Write the plan. Organize your plan in a logical sequence so that both left-brain and right-brain people will be able to glean understanding. Use a simple “at a glance” template and add detail in an appendix. Below is a template that I really like. It captures the “define-measure-analyze-improve-control” principles from Lean.
  5. Make decisions. As you implement your project plan, regularly keep checking the plan. Modify the plan during implementation, as necessary. Remember, plans are just that – plans. They serve as a guide in the process. Adjustments can and should be made to fit the reality of implementation.

Your complete project plan will include assumptions and decisions about the project as well as the project’s estimated (and approved) scope, cost, and schedule. Another advantage to having a project plan is that it helps to facilitate communication among stakeholders – they don’t need to guess about the project, since all the details are written in the plan. And that in itself can be counted as a successful outcome of your project!