Good business operations continually seek ways of automating, standardising, simplifying and improving tasks and processes. The power of checklists in business is significant because of the recurring nature of operational processes.

When a series of tasks work together to create an outcome, we call that a process. When a business process is repeated more than once, it is then a recurring process. As soon as it proves to be recurring, we are looking to standardise it by creating a checklist and then seek never-ending improvements to it over time. Business checklists are a vital tool in an Operations team’s toolbox. In some businesses, operations is mostly a case of following checklists.

However, this does not mean that checklists are necessarily mundane or only carried out by relatively untrained staff. The power of checklists in business is such that they can apply to all staff; from an unskilled ground worker in a small business to the CEO of an international corporation. Let me highlight why checklists are important at all levels:

Why checklists are important

In 1903, the Wright brothers achieved the world’s first sustained powered flight in North Carolina, USA. That flight marked the start of a pioneering era in aviation which led to the first commercial flight in 1914 alongside rapid military aviation development up to and during the first world war. Technological advances continued exponentially through the inter-war period, leading to a pivotal moment in flight management.

In 1935, during take-off on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s routine test flight, without warning, the aircraft plummeted to earth killing both pilots. The ensuing investigation concluded that the pilots had not de-activated a simple ‘gust-lock’, so the control surfaces could not respond to their instrument adjustments. The subsequent enquiry found that the use of a simple checklist would have prevented this tragedy. This conclusion triggered the formal introduction of checklists into all flight management protocols which have remained ever since.

The medical industry later adopted checklists, most noticeably for surgical procedures, taking its lead from aviation. In “The Checklist Manifesto”, Atul Gawande – endocrine surgeon, author and most notable for helping to reduce human error through the introduction of checklists in surgery – concludes that experts need checklists:

“The volume and complexity of what we know have exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely or reliably”.

Atul Gawande

This “volume and complexity” applies across most professions, so it is not a surprise that today checklists are part of an operational culture for surgeons, lawyers, software developers, architects, armed forces etc.

The analogies for business are clear: The cockpit represents business operations; pilots – the operations team; flight instruments – the spreadsheets and other data sources. The flight plan is the business plan, while the flight represents the business process itself.

It is worth noting that human error still pervades, even with the use of checklists. Common causes of failure include succumbing to old habits, over-familiarity with a process, time pressures and snobbery of those feeling too important to need such checklists. While a field of science has emerged to study and improve the use of checklists, suffice to say that the most successful implementations occur when a profession has instilled checklists into an organisation’s culture. The ‘expert’ recognises that checklists are not a prop for entry-level staff but are critical for all to manage any complex task or process “correctly, safely or reliably”.

So, a reliable business process needs a checklist. More importantly, if we accept that an operations team member is the pilot, they must be high calibre and well trained. The pilot follows checklists but has the intelligence, experience, and training to act effectively outside checklists’ boundaries. How would you feel if the stewardess took a turn at flying the plane? So, it follows that the operations team should be intelligent, experienced, well trained, comfortable with both checklists and whatever extraordinary situations may arise at any given moment.

A reliable process needs a checklist.

Good business operations will implant checklists into their ‘open’ culture. Senior managers, team leaders and operations staff will see checklists as a fundamental part of delivery. Checklists should contain enough information for a well-trained individual to be reminded of the process, but not necessarily provide a complete description of how to carry it out.

Why checklists work

A business checklist is fundamentally an ordered, written record of a business process. In some simple business processes, this may comprise a handful of bullet points with little explanation needed. That is fine if the requirements are clear to the user. I have created more complex business checklists; in one case, we noted over 800 action and associated data collection points. The nature of the checklist is peculiar to the process in hand.

The reasons why checklists work are as follows: They

  • ride above variations in operations staff performance: Inevitably, some of your staff will at some point have a bad day. Perhaps they have unintentionally brought a personal problem from home with them to work. A good business checklist will keep that bad day in check.
  • enhance quality control, ensuring processes are efficient and consistent: Some business processes are highly sensitive. I used to run a brewery. Brewing good beer was a simple process, but the same process had to be followed each time. A small variation in, say, the temperature during the initial sparging would make irretrievable differences to taste and quality in the end. My head brewer had brewed beer for over 40 years. He used checklists.
Should have used a checklist
  • encourage cross-checking: We know that “two minds are better than one”. The same applies to business operations. When a more complicated process has been completed, wouldn’t it make sense to get someone to check it? My head brewer would have done. But how can someone else check your process if it isn’t written down? Therefore, the presence of checklists naturally encourages a culture of cross-checking, which is a good thing.
  • facilitate multiple team members: At some point, you will have experienced staff absences from work. In a ‘closed’ culture, staff can be very protective of their routines and processes. You know, knowledge is power, that sort of thing. This attitude is fine until the day they are not there. Now you have a problem. In an ‘open’ culture, knowledge is not power, checklists prevail, and it is relatively easy to ask someone else to step in to help without loss of time or quality.
  • provide visibility of process progress: Most business processes are interdependent on others. For instance, a salesperson may like to know how far a particular order has been processed. Has a potential client’s credit check started? In my brewery situation, have the hops been added to the wort at the correct time? (As an aside, this ability to ‘see’ what is going on in other parts of a business is one of the key features of a CRM system.). Checklists provide visibility.
  • ensure that the correct person carries out each task within the process: Of course, some processes involve more than one person. Some processes involve several people, perhaps several times. It is difficult to imagine how this could work without written checklists.

So, in summary, the reason why checklists work is that they allow us to work smarter, not harder. A business can deliver a process consistently and successfully each time it is run and by whoever. Business checklists are not a statement of hierarchy, e.g. “senior managers don’t need to bother”. They can be appropriate to all business levels at any time. Pilots, surgeons and brewers use them. Do you?

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