Why E-mail is Like Oil

Let’s be brutal here: you’re probably buried in e-mail.  And like crude oil, e-mail can be a sticky, annoying substance that’s practically impossible to clean.  We need e-mail to get things done, but it seems like an endless, yucky mess.

The funny thing about oil is that while spilling a little bit is a problem and spilling a ton is an ecological disaster, applying five quarts of the stuff in thin layers throughout every part of an engine is the only way to make it run smoothly.  E-mail was invented to serve as business process improvement just like oil is supposed to make engines more efficient.

E-mail is like oil: indispensable if used right; despicable if used wrong.

There’s great wisdom in thinking about the way you maintain lubrication in your car and facilitate coordination in your office:

  • First: the total quantity of oil/e-mail must be carefully maintained.  Not enough and the parts and pieces mash together, creating tension. Too much and the stuff overflows and you spend more time cleaning up than making progress.
  • Second, both e-mail and oil work well when they are applied in thin layers between the junctions of moving pieces. Oil droplets and e-mail messages work best when they are nearly microscopic. If you’re writing a message that goes on for more than a few sentences or tries to cover more than one topic, you’ll gum up the works.
  • Third, e-mail and oil both need to be expunged and replaced.  Mechanics recommend 3,000 miles for the typical car engine.  I advise about one day for the typical e-mail inbox.  You should be processing your email down to zero messages almost every day.  Use the “offline mode” of your e-mail program to prevent more messages from coming in while you’re draining out those that are in the system.  Clean out the pipes and make way for fresh content!

If your e-mails are thin, direct, and clear, you’ll have a business engine that runs smoothly.  You will connect with customers, partners, vendors and employees in a way that enables the real work to happen outside of e-mail.  That may be the ultimate message of this analogy: e-mail is like oil because you want to use it to facilitate power delivery, but you don’t want the oil itself to burn.

E-mail Oil Slick

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Image by Jason Pratt

This is a guest post by Robby Slaughter. Visit his web site www.slaughterdevelopment.com to learn more about his process consulting firm.  If you would like to guest post on this site, read the guidelines here.

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