Effective Email Communications

A good part of your work day is spent (or wasted) sending and responding to email messages. Follow the tips below to ensure your time– and the time of your email recipients– is well spent.

1. Consider your audience

Start by addressing the following questions to ensure your message hits the mark: 

  • Who is the recipient or audience for your message or request?
  • What do you want or need your audience to know or do?
  • What does your audience want to know?
  • What might your audience misinterpret or get wrong?
  • When does your audience need to know the information?
  • Who is the most appropriate person to deliver the message?
  • Is email the best approach for what you hope and need to achieve? Messages that require dialogue or include sensitive content (e.g., bad news, constructive feedback, time sensitive) are best delivered in person or over the phone.

2. Make your subject line count

Most of us sort by subject title, so make it easy for people to sort and respond to your message by following the formats below.

  • For informational messages use: “<Topic: Topic Item>”.  For example:
    • Newsletter: Effective Email Communications
    • Training: Building a Problem-Solving Culture on <date>
  • For emails requiring an action use: “Request: <Insert action item by <date>”. For example:
    • Request: Provide feedback on project charter by <date>
    • Request: Vacation Leave

3. Get to the point

We are bombarded with emails every day. Before you write a message ask yourself, “Is this message needed?” If not, don’t send it! You have just saved your coworkers time and they would thank you if they knew. Knowing that the more messages you send, the more you are likely to receive may be the right encouragement needed to make this practice a habit.

If a message is needed, make it easy for your audience to pick out the main point within the first sentence or two. For example, state the purpose of your message and any specific action request at the top of your message, and place context or background at the end.

4. Use Plain Language

Plain language is writing in a manner that enables your audience to read, understand, and act on your message easily and quickly. Communicating clearly builds audience trust and confidence in your message and in your organization. Apply the practices below to enhance your communication effectiveness.

  • Use headers to identify related content.
  • Keep sentence length reasonable (break sentences up that are longer than 20-25 words).
  • Put important information at the top.
  • Use bulleted or numbered lists.
  • Arrange words, dates, and action steps in a logical order.
  • Eliminate unneeded/redundant words (some of you will get this reference!).
  • Minimize acronyms and spell them out the first time they are used.
  • Select font type, size, color, and letter spacing that makes your message easy to read.
  • Use active not passive voice (see Plain Writing Tips – Passive Voice and Zombies)
  • Avoid complex words when a shorter and more commonly understood word will do (e.g., Use vs Utilize, Stop vs Cease. For other examples: “Plain Language: A few words from the Federal Register”).
See the source image

5. Check it … then check it again

Mistakes in spelling, content, and attachments can lead to miscommunication and potential embarrassment. An easy solution is to check your message and verify that data is correct, assumptions have been validated, and you have attached the appropriate document or materials before you hit “send.”

And because we are human, most email software has an option to retrieve and resend a message, but only if you catch your errors quickly and know how to use this function!

6. Use “Reply All” judiciously

We have all been annoyed by a coworker who “replied all” to an organization-wide distribution list. For the sanity of your coworkers, follow the rules below for group messages.

  • Reply all if requested by the sender or if your response will inform the understanding or decisions of other message recipients.
  • Reply to sender if your response is only pertinent to the sender (e.g., Group message to see who is interested in being part of a new project team). This option is typically your best option.
  • Do not reply to group messages that are solely informational.

NOTE: When sending informational messages, put recipients’ names in the bcc line to eliminate the ability of people to select “reply all”.

By Cristine Leavitt, Owner of Gazelle Strategies (www.gazellestrategies.com)

Championing Continuous Improvement

The most important factor in an organization’s ability to improve and sustain high performance is the extent to which executives champion continuous improvement (CI). So, what does it take to become a CI Champion?  A personal desire and commitment to align your words and actions with CI principles and practicesBefore divulging actions that leaders can take to champion CI, it is important to understand what we mean by some key terms:

  • Champion (Noun): a person who fights for a cause or on behalf of someone else.
  • Continuous improvement (CI): an ongoing effort to improve performance and enhance customer value by modeling CI principles and using best practice approaches (e.g., Lean, Six Sigma, Balanced Scorecard, TQM, Baldrige Framework, etc.).
  • Continuous improvement (CI) champion: a person whose words and actions align with CI principles and who applies and advocates use of best practice approaches to improve performance and enhance customer value.
  • Continuous improvement principles:
    • Customer focus: Design and improve products and services based on the needs and preferences of customers and relentlessly drive out process waste.
    • Results: Set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound goals, measure and communicate performance, and follow through on commitments.
    • Respect: Listen to and involve employees in improving performance, and develop processes for employee success.
    • Equity: Eliminate bias and ensure equal opportunity in the design and delivery of products and services and in the work environment.
    • Excellence: Strive to be the best, innovate, apply best practices, and learn from successes and failures.
    • Data-driven decisions: Verify assumptions, and validate results and inform decisions with data.

      Ways to Grow your CI Competence

Below are actions leaders can take within three key CI focus areas.

Improving Product, Service, Process, and System Effectiveness and Efficiency

  1. Sponsor improvement projects that align with strategic priorities.
  2. Go to the Gemba (area where value is created or where the work gets done) – 1) Observe and learn; 2) Ask questions: “How well are we meeting customer/stakeholder requirements?” “What gets in your way of improving services to customers and for the people doing the work?”; 3) Share observations and best practices; and 4) Express and show appreciation.
  3. Challenge the status quo – Ask questions “What are we doing to improve performance? “Why are results declining?” “Is this the best way to do the work?”  “How have other organizations tackled this challenge?” “What’s next?”
  4. Eliminate low value work and reprioritize work load.
  5. Give staff permission to experiment and take risks.
  6. Appropriately resource improvement projects, remove barriers, and manage change.
  7. Follow-up with staff to assure solutions are implemented and desired results sustained.

Building Skills and Organizational Capability to Improve Performance

  1. Learn about CI – visit the Accountability and CI website’s Skill Building page.
  2. Train, coach, and involve staff who are closest to the customer in improving the work and developing solutions.
  3. Capture lessons learned and leverage solutions.

Sustaining Improvement and Creating a CI Culture

  1. Model CI principles in your words and actions and coach others to do the same. For example, delegate decision making and eliminate signature requirements whenever possible.
  2. Establish infrastructure (i.e., ICI strategy, roadmap, governance structure and roles, project portfolio, performance measures and dashboard, toolbox, process inventory, training plan, communication plan)
  3. Verify and communicate results and hold people responsible for performance.
  4. Create safe conditions for people to speak up about what is not working and share ideas.
  5. Recognize and reward employees who lead and participate on improvement projects. Celebrate success!

Creating a Continuous Improvement Culture

As a performance improvement expert, I often train managers on their role in creating and growing a continuous improvement culture.  Continuous improvement or CI is defined as an ongoing effort to improve products, services, and processes based on established principles and proven methodologies and tools.  At the outset of a training session I provide an overview of continuous improvement.  Then I ask the group a series of questions to reach an understanding of what it takes to create and sustain a continuous improvement culture. This article shares responses and insights from managers I have had the privilege to work with.

What results would you see in an organization that is committed to continuous improvement?

The organization would have…

  • High customer satisfaction with products and services.
  • Clear performance goals and the resources needed to achieve them.
  • Employees who are committed to the mission of the organization, willing and able to speak up about what is not working, and who are trained/coached on how to improve performance.
  • Effective and efficient processes, including processes to innovate and continuously improve.
  • Clear, timely, and constructive communications.
  • Metrics that tell customers and employees how well the organization is performing.
  • Timely decisions based on data and evidence, not assumptions or hearsay.
  • Innovation and risk taking.
  • Celebrations of successes and recognition of people who make them happen.
  • An inclusive environment where people are treated with respect, similarities and differences are honored and celebrated, and the workforce reflects the diversity (race, gender, sexual orientation, religious, etc.) of the community.

Who wouldn’t want to work for an organization like that?

What would it take to create a continuous improvement culture?

Leaders would need to…

  • Model desired behaviors and values in their words and actions.
  • Create an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up and taking risks.
  • Dedicate resources to innovation and tackling big problems.
  • Be forward thinking, study best practices, and continually learn from successes and failures.
  • Set and communicate a clear strategy and engage others in a shared vision of success.
  • Make timely decisions, delegate authority, and engage the knowledge and creativity of employees to innovate and solve problems.
  • Provide clear, timely, constructive communications.
  • Ensure people have the skills, knowledge, and abilities to perform the work.
  • Show they care about customers, employees, and partners.
  • Be equitable and fair in how they treat people and make decisions.
  • Follow through on commitments and hold others accountable for performance.
  • Mentor and coach employees and align employee work with priorities.
  • Celebrate successes and recognize high performing teams and individuals.

Employees would need to…

  • Design and deliver products and services that meet or exceed customer requirements.
  • Model organizational values in their words and actions.
  • Continuously improve processes and their ability to add value to customers and the organization.

What blocks organization leaders from creating a continuous improvement culture?

Lack of Courage

  • Fear of mistakes (risk adverse), appearing incompetent, or looking stupid
  • Loss of control
  • Comfort with status quo
  • Mistrust of others
  • Ignoring poor performers
  • Not asking for help
  • Hiding or ignoring problems – lack of transparency

Lack of Caring

  • Not listening to and acting on the ideas and concerns of customers and employees
  • Not celebrating successes and showing appreciation of others
  • Not engaging affected parties in decisions

Lack of Competence

  • Not focusing on the customer
  • Failure to transition from their subject matter expert role to their leadership role
  • Not setting and deploying a clear strategy with measurable goals
  • Not creating an open and inclusive work environment
  • Poor communication
  • Inflated egos or arrogance – thinking “I have the best ideas”
  • Not getting out of their office to observe the work being done, talking with customers and employees, and showing respect (management by walking around)
  • Focused on the short term (e.g., bottom line) and not the long term
  • Making decision based on assumptions & hearsay – not data and evidence
  • Not investing in personal and organizational learning and growth
  • Reprimanding staff for bringing up problems

Lack of Commitment

  • Failure to dedicate resources where they are needed, including not aligning work with priorities
  • Lack of persistence and follow through on goals and promises, including verification of results
  • Failure to hold others accountable for performance and implementation of action items
  • No performance measures

With continuous improvement the emphasis is on action, not perfection.  The concept of “kaizen” or continuous improvement is making many small changes that add up to a big impact.  Too often we wait for something bigger before launching small changes.  Then time goes by, people move on, and in many cases good ideas are not implemented and benefits are not realized.

The training session concludes with a request for managers to identify and record on a post-it note (i.e., a visual management tool) one action they will take within 30 days to create and sustain a continuous improvement culture.  Then I remind the group of Deming’s proven methodology:

  • Plan – select a focus area for improvement (building courage, competence, caring, commitment or increasing quality, timeliness, and efficiency) and identify one or more specific, time bound actions you will take to improve performance
  • Do – implement your action item
  • Study – study the results; what worked and why? What didn’t work and why?
  • Act – adopt, adjust or abandon your approach and repeat the process until you have achieved perfection

In conclusion, creating a continuous improvement culture requires leaders who are courageous, caring, competent, and committed to applying CI principles, methods, and tools.  Sustained focus will ensure not just a handful of CI leaders, but an entire organization of CI leaders who are ready, willing and able to innovate, solve problems, and streamline processes that enhance customer value.  This is what it takes to become a high performing organization.

– Cristine Leavitt is a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt for the Metropolitan Council and owner of Gazelle Strategies.