the Checklist Manifesto

I just finished reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande which is an intriguing book that makes the case that one can improve any discipline with the use of checklists. Gawande is a surgeon, so most of his examples are in the medical field and he has the statistical research to back up his claim that a simple checklist can save lives. (This book will make you think about some things before going into a hospital!). As a pilot I’m sold on the value of checklists for aviation, but he also draws from the fields of finance and construction to make his point that complex changing disciplines can benefit from checklists. It certainly made me think about how the businesses I know could benefit from checklists – including my own!

Now what he calls checklists, I would also call systems. They are a written series of steps taken to complete part of a job. And the point is to follow these steps every time you do that job. Examples in small business could be a sales process, sales script, marketing campaign, how you take orders, how you answer the phone, how you hire and train employees, etc. We know that systematizing things will lead to greater efficiency, happiness and profit. Yet there is always resistance to doing this; people just don’t like the sound of it.

Gawande explores this human resistance to checklists. He points out that we just don’t like them. They are not fun; they’re painstaking. And they are embarrassing. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist and it runs counter to our deeply held beliefs about how truly great people work on their own. People fear rigidity and working as mindless automatons. But it is actually the opposite! Systematizing certain routine processes frees up your brain to think about other higher level activities, allowing more creative problem solving to occur.

Every business I know can benefit from systematizing certain procedures, but it is not a smooth process to change over to. It means embracing a culture of teamwork and discipline. And discipline is hard! Having a system in place can help make priorities clearer and can prompt people to function better as a team. But you have to train your people in how to use them.

Here are some points from the book about writing a checklist. Use simple, exact wording and keep the list short by focusing on the most overlooked and most detrimental steps to skip. Make sure the list is precise, efficient, to the point and easy to use. And make sure it’s practical! Keep it free of clutter and unnecessary colors. And make sure there are communication check points on the list so teams talk to each other. First drafts will almost always need revisions and rewriting. Test it, change it, and test it again.

Creating good systems takes time up front, but will lead to increased efficiency with fewer mistakes and this will lead to increased profitability in the long run. If you need more convincing about the impact a system can have, I strongly recommend reading this book, The Checklist Manifesto!