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The Quality Fair and some email advice


The Quality Fair never ceases to amaze

By Adam Overland

Levine 165
Keynote speaker Stuart Levine addresses the audience during the 2010 Quality Fair.
--Photo by Patrick O'Leary.

February 23, 2010

Every year I go to the Quality Fair and every year I'm surprised. Maybe I'm a pessimist, but quality implies such a philosophical notion--an often concretely indefinable concept. Yet every year I see quality demonstrated, even though my expectations are always uncertain. Maybe it's because the fair is held in February, the longest month in Minnesota. But each year I root around among the poster displays from people all over the U, listen to a few, always excellent, speakers, and emerge like a Punxsutawney Phil without a shadow--a cloudy optimist, happy to find the winter weight-gain not projected on the ground for all to see (although low in the sky, the sun can be thinning).

No doubt it's going to be a difficult next few years for all of us. The budget is grim, and people nationwide are hurting. This year's theme "Leadership at Every Level" couldn't have come at a better time. Ideas and projects centered on how to balance more with less--more work, fewer people, scarcer resources, and less time. Keynote speaker Stuart Levine says this is exactly when leadership capacity is critical.

Demographics are changing and the Minnesota population in particular is aging. Levine says this trend is even more pronounced in higher education. Opportunities will emerge, and with the right foundation, leaders will follow. He says that one key challenge will be providing for workers' continual need to learn, and nowhere is learning more convenient than at an institution of higher education. For more information, see Levine's presentation.

Time and the challenge of email
Very few of us love the smell of email in the morning, but we can sense its presence, and know it's going to be there with or without us; so what to do about it?

Arthur Hill, the John and Nancy Lindahl Professor for Excellence in Business Education at the Carlson School of Management, presented "Personal Operations Management: Lean Principles for Getting Good Things Done," at this year's fair. He has more than 30 years of research, teaching, and consulting in operations management, and has given similar presentations at companies including Best Buy, Goodwill Industries, and the Home Depot. His presentation, broadly, is about managing time and work effectively, but for the purpose of brevity, I excerpt here some of his words on the ubiquitous issue of email. He says he once spoke with a dean who admitted to having more than 6,000 unopened emails.

For most of us, the barrage of emails is not quite that extreme, but the problem of too much to do contributes to stress, worry, and guilt, says Hill. This, in turn, tears down our mind, body, and spirit. So Hill suggests a few simple but meaningful habits to make a part of your work life.

For starters, he says, remember the "pi" rule: "Tasks regularly take 3.14 times longer than you plan." Thus, it's important to be organized. He suggests making a task list that is both prioritized and actionable. For example, he says, don't put "paint the house" on the list. Instead, break it into manageable steps. Start with "buy paint."

With email, he says, it's important to remember a few simple rules, and some of them, I admit, seem downright foreign. For example, "Never check email in the morning," is one of his most important rules. He says instead that we should start the day with goals and bigger projects--email should not be on a "to-do" list.

Other email advice:

  • Abide by the two-minute rule--if it takes less than two minutes, do it now.
  • Write short emails with very concise and meaningful subject lines and do not cc unless absolutely necessary--very often, the cc is not necessary and is a waste of many people's time.
  • Reduce the number of emails you write to reduce the number you receive. Do not write a "thank you" email every time you receive a correspondence.
  • Never have more than one screen of emails open at a time.
  • Open an email once, and process it right away.

Finally, says Hill, remember that interruptions occur about every 2.5 minutes, and it usually takes about 10 minutes to recover from each interruption. The main source of the interruption? You.


There were many more presentations at the Quality Fair, and far too many poster presentations detailing innovative projects under way at the U to even begin to detail here. You can find more information about some of the best and most innovative projects as they are posted online next week at Quality Fair Awards 2010.