Sunday, May 24, 2015

Drowning in email

This is a true story. The company name has been changed.


The Acme Corporation and its two subsidiaries were outsourcing their order taking and fulfillment functions to Standard Inc.  Every month, Standard would send a file of orders taken and shipped so that Acme and its subsidiaries could record entries in their financial systems.

Standard would create one file each month and split it into three, so the file design and content had to be capable of loading into the three different financial systems used by Acme and its subsidiaries.

The three companies would need to define common requirements for the incoming file. A facilitator worked with financial, sales, fulfillment, tax, and systems representatives from Acme and its subsidiaries to define the common requirements.

The situation

With so many participants involved and multiple organizations and systems to serve, progress on the common design was very slow.

In addition, many issues surfaced during the design discussions. They were documented in minutes of the meeting and assigned to individuals for follow up. However, some issues were very time-consuming to resolve and held up progress on the design.

When the deadline was reached and the requirements were not completed, the Standard Inc. systems analyst started to attend the requirements sessions to learn what she could about the requirements.

Between requirements meetings, several participants were sending email and phone messages to the analyst at Standard, letting her know about the various issues and proposed resolutions.

The Standard systems analyst began to receive twenty, then thirty, and then forty messages per day about design concerns.

Then, as the technical specifications were being developed at Acme and the two subsidiaries, there were additional questions. At fifty messages per day, the systems analyst at Standard began to feel like she was drowning in email.

The blame game

The staff at Acme and its subsidiaries complained that the Standard analyst was unresponsive and not able to answer questions or address issues. They were beginning to question the ability of Standard to complete the necessary files. Standard, however, felt that Acme was not being fair, as the design was late being completed, and issues were continuing to be raised long after Standard had expected them to be settled.

The project manager reviewed several of the emails with the facilitator who had been working with the participants to create the functional design.

The content of each message required assessment of the impact on other aspects of the design. In addition, there were frequently other parties to consult before a resolution could be reached. For instance, if Acme head office wanted sales orders to be summarized differently, the two subsidiaries would have to be consulted to see if the change would be acceptable. On top of these considerations, the volume of messages to be dealt with was very high.

They concluded that Standard’s analyst could not possibly have time to answer the volume of issues and questions in addition to the work she already had to do. Unfortunately, Standard’s analyst did not have help, and getting someone at Standard assigned and then up-to-date on the project and issues would take a long time.

However, the facilitator had been involved in the requirements sessions already with all parties, so was knowledgeable about the project details.

The project manager assigned the facilitator to coordinate all issues and questions. Everyone wanting to question or raise an issue with Standard’s analyst had to send it to the facilitator. The facilitator would coordinate all the requests, prioritize, and summarize them for a once-daily phone meeting with the analyst at Standard. In addition, the facilitator would do all the coordination between Acme and its subsidiaries for requests for changes.


It took a few weeks for the backlog of issues and questions to be cleared up. However, the assignment of the facilitator to work as an assistant to Standard’s analyst worked well, and the backlog lessened. In addition, when the analyst had a question or issue for Acme, she could have the facilitator coordinate with Acme and the subsidiaries, and determine a common answer. With so many parties to consider, this coordination saved a lot of time for the analyst.


The project manager had heard complaints from both sides. Acme complained about how unhelpful and unresponsive Standard was, while Standard blamed Acme for causing the project to be so late.

However, the project manager realized that pointing fingers was not getting the job done. So, he focused on assessing and solving the problem.

The problem was that the analyst at Standard had too much work. The project manager’s solution was to assign an extra resource, a knowledgeable one, to help out the analyst.

Copyright 2015 Debbie Gallagher