InBox Zero and better practice

If you use social media, you see status updates about attempts to achieve InBox Zero. I hadn’t probed that phrase much, so didn’t realize its connection to Merlin Mann of 43folders.  I had figured out that people were struggling to empty their email in-boxes.  I’d also guessed that many  people were not necessarily following a strict regimen, just using the phrase loosely, the way they say “best practice” or “customer focus.”  Or, after a sneeze, “bless you.”

The loose sense of inbox zero is an email counterpart to the Cleared-Off Desk.  Either of these things can be ripped from context, turned from a possible indicator of progress  into the Talisman of Virtue.

I understand the desk is quite a fine one.

Recently I spent a distressing  amount of time mucking around with my email, especially the rules I’ve created to initially process stuff.  This felt a lot like work (in the “chores you need to get around to” sense), which had me musing yet again on training versus learning.

I had this idea: training is about YOU; learning is about ME.

To generalize energetically, one of the most common meanings for “training” in organizations is:

A planned, focused, structured approach…
over a limited amount of time…
for novices, especially in groups…
to develop competence they currently lack…
in applying mainly procedural skills…
in a limited amount of time.

That’s what’s behind how to use the email system, how to manufacture ceramic heaters, how to write a flood insurance policy” or how to open savings accounts.  Those are examples of predominantly procedural tasks from projects I’ve worked on, either for newly hired employees or people needing to learn a  process significantly different from the old one.

“Training is for you” is shorthand for saying that someone’s delineated this cluster of skill.  Yes, I know that often the delineation isn’t that great–but for now assume  somebody did sufficient analysis to say:

  • These people can’t do these things
  • They can’t because they don’t know how
  • Knowing how will enable them to produce these results to this level of quality.

At the risk of seeming to lowball, I’m thinking about that end-of-training level of quality as competence.  Competence, as opposed to mastery.  In that highly-conditional context in the box above, you develop training for others (“training is for you”) to help them become competent–to perform adequately in a new environment.

Remember, though, they’re the people doing the learning (“learning is for me”).  What’s more, as on-the-job performance moves from the relatively narrow context of isolated procedural skills (how to complete a mortgage application) to more complex situations (how to help clients understand and choose a mortgage option), you can’t help people achieve competence, let alone mastery, through traditional training and development approaches.

Even in the small area of dealing with email, I noticed the value of clusters of skills, not all of which would fit easily into a cookbook-style job aid. *

Like understanding and applying tools.  Not just to create email rules in Outlook (in my case), but to apply options that mark, sort, auto-delete incoming mail–and to handle my replies, a harder task when you’re not on a corporate server. Or like periodically perform maintenance, like tracking down the causes of persistent problems, or like reviewing, editing, and pruning existing rules.

Or like knowing when to stop doing more of what you’ve been doing. On that last point, I’m thinking of GE’s Jack Welch.  He talked once about inventory turns, a way to measure how you’re controlling inventory costs.  If you try to keep 100 niblicks on hand, and you sell 500 a year, you have 5 inventory turns.  In general, a lower number of turns means higher cost.

If the niblick group tries to improve from 10 to 11 turns a year, they’ll probably do the same things, only faster.  To go from 10 to 15 turns  in one year, “faster” won’t work.  They’ll have to rethink assumptions, re-examine givens, see the parts and the whole.  As as Welch saw, even if they don’t hit 15, they’re likely to far surpass what they would have done incrementally.

If you focus simply on getting your inbox to zero, there’s a risk that you’re just moving and deleting stuff faster.  You’re dealing with procedural specifics at a task level.  If instead you focus on processing information that comes to you, you’re do this right now, put this on the afternoon’s schedule, file this with that project, route these to the keep-for-now-but-autodelete-in-a-month folder.

Part of Merlin Mann’s approach is to route incoming items to logical next steps.  In other words, inbox zero doesn’t mean you’re done; it means you’re ready to start with things that matter.

That more complex cluster of skills isn’t something that traditional training will achieve.  It’s a performance improvement that depends on individuals learning and on various kinds of collaborative work that’s encouraged and supported by the workplace.  The kind of better practice that surpasses “best practice.”

* How clever of you to notice that I was happy to stop editing email rules for a while so I could sit back and philosophize analyze at a higher level.

3 thoughts on “InBox Zero and better practice

  1. Insightful post. Thank you. I thought I’d add that the process of achieving the 10 to 15 niblick jump based on rethinking assumptions and starting from the beginning can also be achieved through collaboration. As one of my coworkers says, if we take our team from 3 to 4, we won’t get a third more work done (assuming we’ve hired well)- we’ll get 50% more work done based on having a smart person contributing good ideas to our brainstorming and problem-solving discussions.

    Collaborative discussion offers an exponential benefit to the organization reassessing its processes.

  2. Kelly, good point. I don’t think there’s a single road to the 10-to-15 jump (and though he doesn’t talk to me much, I don’t think Jack believes that, either). Although at times Six Sigma turned into a state religion at GE, one thing it could accomplish was to give a group of people some shared approaches and a common vocabulary, which are things to help facilitate that collaboration.

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