The Power Of Checklists

The Power Of Checklists

According to the book The Checklist Manifesto – How to Get Things Right, the humblest of quality control devices, “the checklist”, is the key to taming our busy, overwhelmed, fast-changing, high-tech world.

I can imagine many of you rolling your eyes right now. Following and filling out checklists seems to be a universally loathed activity. Does the following sound familiar?

“I don’t need to follow a checklist. I’m a qualified (insert) and have been doing this job for (insert) years. I’m an expert in this area and I know what I am doing. I trust my instincts. Using a checklist is demeaning and restricting. I’m too busy getting things done, and a checklist is just giving me more work to do, and will slow me down.”

The author Atul Gawande is a surgeon and shared stories of many people in his profession who feel the exact same way. Unfortunately, this kind of professional arrogance is the major cause of unnecessary patient suffering and death. Protocols and checklists have been proven to save lives in hospitals, but despite showing this evidence to doctors and nurses, many still resist using them. Yet, when these same medical professionals are asked, “Would you want a checklist to be used if you personally were having the operation?”, invariably they say yes.

Researchers looked closely at failures and mistakes in a variety of industries, and recognized that the majority of failures occur for the following 2 reasons:

1. Ignorance – we don’t know enough.

2. Ineptitude – we failed to follow a proven process.

Let’s take a look at both of these causes in more detail:

Ignorance: We don’t know enough.

In order to prevent errors of ignorance, we need a disciplined and structured onboarding process to make sure that when a person starts a new role, they receive the proper training they need to succeed, as well as ongoing coaching and support in order to be able to perform their role to the desired standard over time. Sounds pretty obvious right?

For some roles, a formal certification or license is required to get in the door, but unfortunately, their ongoing learning is then undertaken in a less controlled manner, and people’s skills can become rusty or even redundant over time.

For other roles, like being promoted to a supervisor or manager, people are often thrown into the role and expected to learn on the job. No wonder the failure rates of new managers are so high. Here’s my advice for new managers.

In order to reduce failures due to our own ignorance, we must never stop learning. I have had the privilege of personally consulting to many hundreds of companies, and the most successful business leaders I have met are what I call “ambitious learners”. They are always reading books, attending courses, and asking questions to solicit information from a variety of sources to improve their understanding. They are open-minded and have the courage to change their opinions if better information comes to light.

What are you doing to improve your knowledge and skills?

Ineptitude: We fail to follow the process.

We must never stop learning, but the research shows that most failures and mistakes occur for this second reason – ineptitude.

The use of checklists, protocols, and processes to ensure the right things are done, at the right time, and in the right order is nothing new.

Would you fly on an aeroplane if you knew the pilot decided to fly the plane using their experience, memory, and gut instinct – rather than follow a detailed checklist of everything necessary to conduct a safe and successful flight? No.

It is all too easy for a doctor to miss a step in a surgical procedure – just as it is for a CEO to fail to ask a key “What if?” question before making a strategic decision that will profoundly impact the future of the firm – or a hiring manager shortcutting a hiring process that is designed to thoroughly vet job candidates.

The problem is that once we feel confident in our roles, it can feel beneath us to use a checklist. An embarrassment. We have been conditioned by the media to think that great leaders are heroes with some kind of super intuition. We see ourselves as artists who are able to handle situations of high stakes and complexity using our instincts. Wrong.

We need to get away from the notion that a checklist is an affront to our intelligence and ability. If following a checklist is crucial for the success of highly qualified and highly-trained surgeons, pilots, and astronauts – then why should we think that our roles are exempt or that we are somehow superior in our cognitive abilities?

Following a proven process will increase your likelihood of personal success and also enable you to delegate effectively when others are required to carry out the same activities.

If you want to scale and grow your business, checklists and proven processes are essential for delivering outcomes of a consistently high standard as you add more people and teams.

Too busy to use a checklist?

When US Airways flight 1549 struck a flock of geese and lost power in both engines over New York City in 2009, they had only three minutes of airtime remaining. The first thing they did was to get out their checklists. The pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was able to follow a disciplined process and ditch the plane safely in the Hudson River with no loss of life.

This story is a powerful reminder of how in times of high stress and pressure, using a checklist helps to make sure we do everything right.

You may not have people’s lives at stake in your role, but what makes you think you are too busy, or too qualified to follow a checklist?


Until next time…