Checklists aren’t sexy, but they can help create excellence consistently.
When reading non-fiction books a decade after they first came out, it’s interesting to see how much the big ideas have made an impact since publication. In a lot of ways, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande has impacted healthcare, but the big idea of the book could certainly impact more industries in meaningful ways.
Plainly put, checklists don’t seem like the cool way to get things done. We’re resistant to them.
It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us—those we aspire to be—handle situations of high-stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists.
Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.THE CHECKLIST MANIFESTO, PAGE 173
This idea of updated heroism is especially impactful. The mystical ideal of a high-performer that rejects all structure only deludes leaders into thinking that he or she should just trust instinct every time. It also causes other people to feel like they don’t have what it takes to be a real leader, as is pointed out in The CEO Next Door (an upcoming blog post).
Training Materials Vs. Task Templates
It’s interesting that Gawande explores just how resistant people are to the idea of checklists. Part of the issue is whether or not people really get the idea of the purpose and the contents of a checklist should be.
It is common to misconceive how checklists function in complex lines of work. They are not comprehensive how-to guides, whether for building a skyscraper or getting a plane out of trouble. They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals. And by remaining swift and usable and resolutely modest, they are saving thousands upon thousands of lives.THE CHECKLIST MANIFESTO, PAGE 128
In the company where I work, we have two sources that we commonly use to get specific instructions on work. We have a searchable database with in-depth instructions hosted at Tettra, and we have our specific tasks in ActiveCollab, our task management system.
The exact systems we use are less important than how we use them.
In Tettra, we provide a clear, step-by-step process as to how employees should get a common task done. It gives painstaking detail, and we use it for training. That training may be for a brand new employee, or it could be for an employee or manager who needs to provide back-up for a team member.
We use Tettra on a regular basis for email templates (common replies) and important details. That said, employees shouldn’t be spending most of their day in this system. It’s a reference tool.
In ActiveCollab, we have each team member’s tasks for the day. Depending on the task, we may have used a custom template that includes all of the team member’s steps.
Let me show you a template I recently created for podcast epsiodes:
- Create the show notes
- Record the episode
- Post episode to website
- Notify guest that episode is live
- Post transcript
- Create a quote card
- Post to social media
If you’ve ever created a podcast episode, you’ll notice that I’m missing some key steps in my checklist. For instance, we frequently have guests on our show. I don’t have any steps outlined for recruiting guests and scheduling. All of that is handled in another task.
This task is focused on a specific timeframe, from the time that someone has agreed to come on the show to the time that the social media goes out for the published show.
You’ll also notice that I have nothing here about editing the recording. Our show producer Jared Johnson manages that for us, so we’re able to focus on other steps.
Our checklists intentionally leave out a lot and focus on specific steps. Like Gawande says, effective checklists, or task templates in our case, “provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps–the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss.”
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been slow to remember to notify guests in a timely manner when some new episodes went live. That step went on the checklist to prevent that from happening again.
The real goal with our checklist is making room for us to focus on creating our podcast without forgetting all of the components needed for the content to succeed.
The Value and Limit of Process
When surgeons make sure to wash their hands or to talk to everyone on the team… they improve their outcomes with no increase in skill. That’s what we are doing when we use the checklist.The checklist Manifesto, page 168
After studying successful companies in my MBA program, I finally understood how important process truly is to a company’s health. Repeatable steps allows teams to find the right tools and the right approaches instead of having to explore on every single aspect of a new job.
As Gawande clarifies multiple times throughout his book, a checklist isn’t going to solve everything. In the case of a checklist, it doesn’t account for every single type of complexity, it simply enables teams to be able to focus on the unusual while knowing that the foundations are covered.
Processes can create a profitable path, but companies can get stuck in the familiar and miss market shifts.
The point here is that we still have to keep adapting. Checklists and processes need updating on a regular basis. Ideally, companies should be able to codify how they’re adapting to change through their checklists and processes.
If you’re looking for a starting point, check out The Checklist Manifesto. The book is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 2009.