Checklists – your invisible expert

by | Apr 23, 2015

Starting the process of getting your business systems under control can seem overwhelming and so many business owners avoid it.  Documenting everything you do?  Where do you start?  It all seems just so complex.

Like any task that seems difficult, it is best to start with the simple, basic building blocks.

In this post, we will look at the simplest building block of your business system – The Checklist.

Rudimentary Systems

The truth is that you already HAVE systems in your business – but they may be quite rudimentary. Presumably things get done the same way (well – sort of) most of the time – or you wouldn’t have any customers at all!  Somehow, the message gets through to your team how things get done – mostly by word-of-mouth.

So, there is a ‘system’, but it’s undocumented.  The guru of systems thinking, Michael Gerber, in his book The E-Myth Revisited, tells us that “If it’s not in writing, it’s not a system”, so at this stage we will say that you have an ‘undocumented process’.

The problem with Undocumented Processes

The problem with undocumented processes is that our tasks, simple or complex, just keep getting out of control – turning from complicated to more complicated.  Symptoms include team members turning to cutting corners and shortcuts – leading to further backlogs, work errors, missed deadlines and more headaches.

Every time a new employee starts, or conditions change, the ‘undocumented process’ usually changes as well.

We can try more training, but work errors seem all but unavoidable.

All this makes a business owner just want to give up. That one simple question keeps bothering us – how can a single employee or a team of employees keep the tasks straight and simple?

Enter the humble Checklist.

In his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Dr. Atul Gawande reintroduces an age-old technique for minimizing employee error with a straightforward and uncomplicated tool, yet dreaded by many – the humble Checklist.

Yes, the simple solution is often the best answer for complex tasks.

Apart from being a simple but powerful tool, creating Checklists is also an excellent place to start on your journey to getting your business systemised.

Going Back to the Basics

Gawande, who is a surgeon himself, spent five years analyzing human errors and complicated processes in high-octane work environments. After closely studying various fields and industries – aviation, construction, investment, healthcare – his conclusion and recommendation are both astonishing and simple:

 Ordinary checklists produce impressive results.

 Checklists have been used in various industries and professions as an indispensable reminder of items required, of the things to be done, or of key points to be considered. More often than not, the steps in checklists are common and easily understood.

So how come we don’t use them more?  Why do some people hate and resist using them?

The Checklist – Your personal team of Experts

Sceptics express concerns about checklists – that they are inflexible and rigid, and they delay action, distract attention and block out reasoning and common sense – especially when in high-pressure, time-critical circumstances.

Many people consider creating a checklist for a task that has been done a thousand times to be a pointless and highly impractical waste of time. The sub-text here is that they see checklists as belittling and inhibiting to their skills, knowledge, job tenure, and expertise.

However, Gwande has revolutionized the way work professionals think about and use checklists. He has compared the Checklist to a team of experts behind your back – the Checklist is the organized and written-down know-how of experts in your field. It is both an implement and a supplement.

Human Errors: Up-close and Personal

Gawande investigates employee errors committed in various industries and comes to the conclusion that they are caused by two major reasons:

  1.  Errors of Ignorance – Errors made due to lack of know-how
  2.  Errors of Ineptitude – Errors made due to improper use of know-how

Errors of Ineptitide

Gawande’s research tells us that the main cause of employee errors in our modern world is Ineptitude. He uses a series of case studies – ranging from medicine to construction – where the repetitive tasks of professionals became highly complicated. In these circumstances, mistakes became all but impossible to avoid – it becomes easy for even a skilled and trained employee to skip or miss a step.

Analysts blame it on stress and pressure, but Gawande comes away with a simple conclusion:

 Everybody needs Checklists!

 Errors of Ignorance – the Idiots’ Checklist: By an Idiot, For another Idiot

Many businesses practice this unforgivable no-no.  They throw an inexperienced employee into a high-stake position, then throw in a Checklist written by an equally inexperienced staff member.

Checklists, like all procedures, should be peer-reviewed before being put into action.  What seems obvious to one person will not be obvious to another – and a different Checklist will result.  This is particularly so if the person writing the Checklist has been performing that task for a long time – the “But everyone knows that!” syndrome.

There is a balance between having too much and too little, and the best way to find the balance is through testing.

Pride and Prejudice: Errors of Arrogance?

So why do people – from the lowly to the highly skilled – still resist using Checklists?

Gawande asked hospital staff why they resisted using a checklist, even after they had been shown the benefits.  Answers included “…it was not easy to use….it took too long……….had not improved the safety of care.”

But when the same staff were asked one additional question “Would you want the checklist to be used if you were having an operation?” – a full 93% said yes!

Over-confidence in our skills, and over-familiarity with work procedures usually breeds disrespect for those same procedures. We think that shortcuts and cutting corners on jobs saves time and avoids tedious repetition. But, in the long run, these cost us more work hours, energy and errors – not to mention cold, hard $$$$$.

We need to cast our intellectual arrogance aside, and accept that the humble Checklist is an indispensable tool in our increasingly complex work environment.

Restricting our freedom? Or not…

Admit it or not, checklists give us that feeling of by-the-book, rigid adherence to step-by step procedures, that Checklists won’t allow us any elbow room for spontaneous, impulsive actions and reactions. The Checklist is the unkind bridle of our untamed mind. Don’t CEO’s just conceive key plans by using their infallible intuition and gut instinct?

Checklists do not want to turn your intuitions and instincts off.  In fact, they do just the opposite.  By taking care of the repetitive tasks in an automated, disciplined and accountable way, our minds are freed to work on the hard stuff – using our intuitions and instincts.

The perfect Checklist?

There is no fool-proof way to design effective Checklists, or method to keep them updated. Businesses differ, and so do the tools and devices they employ.

However, there are some sound principles that you should keep an eye on when preparing Checklists for your business.

  •  It has a clear purpose. What is this Checklist for?  What problem is it preventing?
  • It is short. Once you’ve gone over one page – ask yourself if it should be split into two or more lists, or has it got redundant items?
  • It uses simple language and fonts. There’s no place for flowery sentences or fancy fonts here.
  • It covers a task that is important. It might be a repetitive task that has been done a thousand times, but if it’s not done properly or completely, there are financial or other consequences.
  • It requires the user to physically check a box, or write something. The physical act of writing or checking a box helps you to stay ‘on-task”. (Believe me – there’s a whole body of research around this).
  • It is formatted logically. The user doesn’t have to jump from the top to the bottom and back again while completing the list.
  • It has been “stress-tested” or peer-reviewed by actual users, and altered to reflect their input.

Start at the beginning

When starting the journey to get a business systemised and documented, preparing a series of Checklists is often the best place to start.  Some of the Checklists we use in our business are for end of week, end of month and end of quarter tasks.  By using these Checklists, we can be sure that the administration and finance functions in the business are working as they should – getting invoices out and getting money in – without error and without delay.

What tasks do you have in your business that are important, but are done repeatedly? Start documenting them, and you’ll find that you are already on the path to getting your business systemised and under control.


By Bronwyn Reid
23 April 2015