About checklists

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Every now and then, while managing our business we run into a situation that a deadline is not met, that a mistake is made in production, the wrong items are ordered or delivered, a process is interrupted, or a machine breaks down. Name it, every now and then something goes wrong, and we jump into crisis mode to deal with the situation. Today, we know more than ever before while information is available all the time, for a great deal thanks to the internet and digital information management systems. But still we often don’t keep our promises and unnecessarily overlook things. Why is this so? While we can do so many more things, at the same time so many more things can go wrong. One way to deal with this is the use of checklists.
A checklist is a type of job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task.
Everyone knows why to-do checklists are useful: they help you get things done. But there are also particular benefits to routine checklists that have made them an effective tool for navigating complex systems. Here are 4 of them:
Checklists verify that the necessary minimum gets done. With increasing complexity comes the temptation to skip over the stupid simple stuff and instead focus on the “sexy” parts of one’s work and life. Because the stupid simple stuff is so stupid and simple, we often fool ourselves that it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. But as we’ve seen, it’s often our most basic tasks that can spell the difference between success and disaster. Checklists act as a check against our ego, and remind us to make sure the stupid, simple, but necessary stuff gets done.
Checklists free up mental RAM. People often bristle at using a checklist because it feels constraining. They want to be flexible and creative, and the checklist seems to take away their autonomy. Offloading the need to remember basic tasks frees up the brain to concentrate on the important stuff. This means we are left with more mental RAM to focus on handling unforeseen problems that may occur. Checklists don’t replace judgment, they enhance it.
Checklists instill discipline. Checklists continue to play a vital role in aviation. Every time pilots and co-pilots take off and land, they verbally go through a checklist. A lot of what they review is of course the stupid simple stuff, but it’s important stupid simple stuff. When you’re responsible for the lives of 120 passengers, you must have the discipline to make sure you do even the small things right. If there’s ever an incident in air, investigators will go back to see if the pilot and co-pilot went through the checklist. There’s no fudging with it. You either did it or you didn’t. Because checklists provide a binary yes/no answer, they instill discipline in the person that uses it. Research shows that giving someone a checklist for a task increases his or her chances of completing it. There’s something about having a checklist that spurs people to get stuff done. Perhaps it’s the dopamine rush that comes with checking something off, or the concreteness checklists provide, or a combination of the two.
Checklists save time. A common complaint about checklists is they take too much time to go through. But running through a checklist need not take very long, and research shows that doing so will actually save you time in the long run. Because checklists can prevent errors caused by skipping basic steps, you spend less time fixing mistakes and more time doing constructive work.
How then can we make an effective checklist? Simply making a list of the steps involved in a certain task does not make an effective checklist. Here are some tips from The Checklist Manifesto to help create a truly useful checklist:
Investigate your failures and look for “killer items.” Take a look at your work or even your personal life. Are you less productive at work than you’d like to be? Does the house always seem a disaster? Examine why you aren’t getting the results you want. Look for failure or friction points in the tasks you do routinely. These failure or friction points will serve as the basis for your checklist.
Focus only on the “stupid” essential stuff that’s frequently overlooked or skipped. You don’t need a checklist that lists every single step on how to complete a task. That renders a checklist useless. Instead, just focus on putting down the “stupid” but essential stuff that you frequently miss. Your checklist should have no more than 9 items on it. The shorter the better.
Decide if you need a “communication” checklist. Most checklists are likely procedural (they lay out things you need to do), but some tasks or projects are so complex that communicating with others becomes vital to managing all the moving pieces. In such a case, create a dedicated communication checklist and make sure it includes who needs to talk to whom, by when, and about what.
Decide if your checklist will be a “DO-CONFIRM” or “READ-DO” checklist. With DO-CONFIRM checklists, you do your job from memory and experience, but then at a certain point you stop to go through your list to verify you did everything. READ-DO checklists require you to read and perform a task on the checklist before you can move to the next task. If you need more flexibility, go with DO-CONFIRM; if you need more exactness go with READ-DO.
Test your checklist in the real world and refine as needed. If you’re still experiencing the same failures or if the checklist makes work cumbersome to the point that it becomes a stumbling block, then you need to refine your checklist.
Now, on the other hand, excessive dependence of checklists may hinder performance when dealing with a time-critical situation, for example a medical emergency or an in-flight emergency. Checklists should not be used as a replacement for common sense.
Using checklists is not something I have seen used often in Doing Business in Ethiopia. Yes, we are good crisis managers but why do we wait until a crisis occurs? So many crises can be prevented if routine checklists are followed in production processes, in maintenance schedules, in administration, in all that is important to manage our business effectively.

Ton Haverkort
Ref.: Brett & Kate McKay | December 8, 2014 – “The Power of Checklists”