5S Your Email Outbox

After reading my last post, 5S Your Email Inbox, a couple of colleagues asked whether they could apply 5S to sending emails as well. Here are the guidelines that I use – I’m sure others have their methods, too, so feel free to share your own best practices!


1. Ask yourself, does the recipient really need this email? What is it that you want them to do with it when they get it? What makes this email, out of the 250 they will receive today, worthy of their stressed and limited time? If it’s not needed, don’t send it. (But, see the note about thank-you emails below.)

2. Be careful of cc’s (copy-to) and bcc’s (blind copies). Don’t add people to the distribution list as a way to let the primary recipient know that you don’t trust them to take action, or you’re setting up a blame-sharing scenario (trust me, they’ll figure this out without you telling them). And I’ve been burned by bcc’ing something to which the bcc’d individual responded by hitting reply all. Very embarrassing.

3. Know when to pick up the phone. For any email with more than 3 back-and-forth volleys, I call the person to finish the conversation. And some communication just shouldn’t be done by email. You already know that readers can attribute “tone of voice” to email communications, so if you’ve got something sensitive or confidential to share, do it in person or by phone.


1. Help recipients know what you want them to do with the email. Put it in the title: Project XXX (please read and provide feedback by Friday). Status of Team YYY (please respond with any questions). Action Plan for Department ZZZ (Urgent – Action Needed by End of Business Day). Meeting Notes from xx/yy/zz (Review and File).

Handpicked Content:   What Is Real Innovation?

2. Remember that a lot of folks scan through emails using the Preview function. Put the most important things in the top 2 or 3 lines of the email, including an executive summary, action requested and deadlines (if not in the title).

3. If you’re sending to more than one person, be very clear if there are specific action items requested of some individuals, versus the expectation that they will read-and-review.


1. If the email is longer than a couple of paragraphs, consider sending an attachment instead. Within the email, use bullet points to draw attention to important issues. Use bolding (sparingly) to draw the eye to essential points or deadlines.

2. If you are sending an attachment, consider sending the PDF version to save space.

3. Review your email before sending it. Take out any unnecessary verbage – be concise and at the end, close by saying something like “please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about the above.” Trust that your readers will let you know if they need more info.


1. Many time-management experts think that you should set a certain time aside each day to read and reply to emails. In the spirit of continuous flow, that doesn’t work for me, but only you can decide how to handle your inbox. Pick a method that works for you, and practice it.

2. You can sort your sent mail into folders, so you can easily find it again – it’s an option you can consider. Also, did you know that you can drag your sent email into your in-box folders? That way you can keep all your to-and-from correspondence together, if that works for you.

Handpicked Content:   With Thanks


1. Make up a little email audit form to review when sending email, comprised of the check-points you want to review before you hit send. Mine looks like this:

  • Check, do all recipients need this email? Check cc’s. Phone instead?
  • Action requested vs review – clear to all recipients?
  • Concise enough? Need attachment?
  • OK to go?

I’ve been asked about those little “thank you” or acknowledgement emails; some people love them, some think they’re a waste of email space. I love to get them, I appreciate them, I feel warm and fuzzy about them, and then I delete them.

A note about tracking: To me, it always feels a bit like “Big Brother is watching you” when I get the notice that the sender wants to know when I’ve read the email. I use tracking very sparingly; I’d rather set a reasonable timeframe for response and then give the recipient a nudge if they don’t get back to me. But, it’s a personal preference; I know some people who track all their emails (just as I know some who flag every email “high importance”).

Lastly: Your email signature / contact info is an essential part of business communication. Don’t just sign “love, Sue” – if someone needs to call you back or fax you a response, it’s very frustrating to have to go searching for the information. The basics include: Name, title, company, mailing address, phone, fax, email, website if there is one. Use with caution: motivational quotes, images that add size to the email, blinking or moving graphics, background stationary, fonts other than web-safe (Arial, Verdana, Courier, Times New Roman).

Handpicked Content:   Outstanding Workshops Kick Off Retail Forum for Process Excellence

Now that I’ve shared my preferences, I’d love to know what other methods you are using to send emails in a Lean manner!

Comments 8

  1. Rob

    I’ve really enjoyed reading about “lean email”. Only three folders. No multiple categories, tags, etc. These are action, reference and waiting.

    When an email hits my inbox if I can action it in less than 2 minutes I do so. If I can’t I either add it to the action folder to do something with it at a later date myself, or delegate it someone and add it to the waiting folder.

    If I ask someone a question or require some input from them via email again I drag the email out of my sent items over to the waiting folder. Everything else in my inbox or sent items goes over to the reference folder.

    If I need to find any email I just search on a likely keyword using Google Desktop. I also batch my email, which is against lean principles I know. I check it a couple of times a day only and work through them all in one lump. This keeps me focused on other more important tasks, instead of constantly being interrupted.

  2. Ian Furst

    High stakes email is an entirely different game — we’ve added code to our CRM to standardize/automate the management and response. For the inhouse low stakes email I agree with everything you say — I’d add that stop responding with ’thanks — ian’ or ’noted’ waste of email

  3. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks to all for your comments. Rob, I’ve thought about the "batching" question for reading emails, and I’ve decided that it’s more like "pitch" – you can’t completely have one-piece-flow (or you’d never get anything else done), so what’s a reasonable amount of time to allow between email-checking? Some people do it once per hour.

    Ian, I agree with you on the use of special categories – and many people feel the same way you do about "thanks" responses.

    Aux brings up a good point about the "customer" of the email – ok, the recipient doesn’t pay for it, but, wil they consider it value-added or critical to quality?

    Thanks again for your responses!

  4. Six Sigma guy aka deepan

    Good post and comments once again..mmm let me see how i can contribute..

    When you see its a confidential mail or a mail which has been sent to many people its better to use "set permissions" so that confidential mails are not forwarded and noone does reply all to "dont reply all" permission. Best Poke Yoke measure in outlook.

    Never set "read receipt" by default. Use it only for critical emails.

    Just for laugh- There is one more trick to fool ur boss that ur working late. Put a condition- delay delivery- Dont deliver before so and so time so that ur boss knows that ur working late :)


  5. Sue Kozlowski

    Deepan, you gave me my laugh for the day with your working-late trick. Also great advice to prevent inadvertent "reply-to" slip-ups when copying. Thanks!
    –Sue K.

  6. Ian Walker

    Love this blog!

    The question which interests me is "what did we do before email?". Sadly I can’t answer the question, as I’m too young to remember, but it begs the question, we got by without it before, why not again?

    I generally find email as an excuse for not talking to someone, or using it as a workaround to make up for shortcomings on the process or IT development, either way I know it causes countless issues wherever I have worked!

    My point being, applying Lean / Six Sigma to a process which is basically crap in the first place, is pointless, unless everyone else applied the same standards as you! You could increase your own efficiency but unless everyone else does, you might has well of stayed in bed!

    I suggest lets get rid of email completely and replace it with something better, like pigeons!


  7. Sue Kozlowski

    OK, Ian, that’s my second laugh for the day.

    Let’s see… before email… I had to deal with people coming to my door, voicemail, and interdepartmental mail.

    People would stop by, saying "Have you got a minute?" and it would turn into an hour-long conversation. (Sometimes fun, sometimes not.)

    I would get stacks of interdepartmental mail in those brown envelopes. Tons of paper per year, which I felt obligated to file simply because someone took the trouble to send it to me.

    Speaking of which, before email… I could easily explain away my lapses by saying I had sent something through the interdepartmental mail, which everyone knew had a 50-50 chance of getting misdirected or lost.

    Before email… I would type memos on the typewriter with actual carbon paper, and then had to deal with correcting errors on all copies. I got to be very talented with white-out.

    Before email… I had better posture and vision because I didn’t spend my time hunched over squinting at the monitor.

    Thanks Ian for bringing back some great memories!!!

  8. GaryPCox

    HI Sue,
    Couple of great posts here!

    For me, I use the "4-D" approach to managing my in-box:
    1) Do it now!
    2) Delegate it to someone. (One of my team – in outlook you can assign them as ’tasks’ and recieve confirmation when completed.)
    3) Designate time to do it. I either drag the email to my Task List and give it a due date, or I drag it directly to my calendar and book myself time to do it.
    4) Dump it

    I have set up Categories which I assign to each email for filing, these align to my Scorecard, so I now have the ability to do searches on subjects for which I’ll be measured come year-end.

    One other thought in applying Lean Six Sigma to Emails – Is not the purpose of Lean to define VALUE first? So, the first question we need to be asking before we send ANY email is: What’s the value of it?

    I see future the potential for Cox-Box cartoons in this material! – I’ll send you copies if they I create any.


Leave a Reply