You might be asking yourself why there is an entry on checklists. Well, it is because checklists are commonly misued and there are multiple potential pitfalls with this type of standardization.
Some checklists require the steps to be completed in a precise sequence; others, like a checklist for packing, just remind you all the things you need. Some require checkmarks, readings from gauges, times, initials, or even signatures. Some are for reference only—no writing necessary.
Obviously, the ‘To Do’ list keeps you from forgetting things. More importantly though, checklists help ensure consistent and safe results. You probably would head for the nearest emergency exit if you saw your pilot throw the pre-flight checklist in the trash before he entered the cockpit.
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The New England Journal of Medicine studied the use of checklists during 7,688 surgical procedures. The checklists were nothing fancy. They were mostly just for preparation, like making sure there was enough blood on hand in case of an emergency, and that the patient’s identity was confirmed. The bottom line? Death rates dropped by nearly a half, and serious complications were cut by over a third. (Szalavitz 2009)
Think about that. Airline pilots and surgeons are both intelligent and highly trained experts. Yet, they still benefit from the use of a checklist. What do you think checklists will do for those of us who do not have life-or-death jobs or years of training? Will they keep us on our toes? Absolutely.
Since checklists are relatively simple, they are a good ‘first-pass’ method of recording company processes. Leaders can use this to get large numbers of methods recorded with minimal effort. Many employees have access to a computer and can type. The simple format of a checklist doesn’t take any special software skills to complete.
Often, frontline employees rely on memory and word of mouth to share process information. Getting that information written down provides consistency.
Documentation also protects the company from losing valuable expertise if the person ever moves to another position, or worse, leaves the organization.
Recording a process also has an additional benefit. It can lead to sharing best practices and helping team members build agreement about a procedure.
Checklists are reasonably effective, short-term methods for helping employees follow processes (especially in the absence of direct supervision). This reduces the conflicts between employees and bosses when things don’t go right—an unpleasant encounter for everyone involved.
In the long-term, though, the need for checklists should be eliminated. While they can be very effective, they are also wasteful.
Checklists help with that transition. Nobody likes that feeling of working without a net. Checklists are that safety net.
When employees are absent, it can be hard for someone to fill in. Checklists make it easier for a backup to do work they don’t normally do. Having an effective replacement, especially in the office, keeps employees from returning to a huge pile of work on their desks.
On occasion, there has to be some documentation that a task was completed in a specific way. Checklists with room for initials and dates are commonly used to do this.
Some jobs wear people out. Fatigue and boredom lead to errors. Checklists help by serving as reminders so nothing is forgotten. It is much easier to remember to look at a checklist than it is to remember all the steps of a process. People tend to worry less when they have a tool to help them avoid mistakes.
Weekly maintenance checks, annual budgets, or reinstalling a computer operating system are not done often enough to be committed to memory, but mistakes will cause big problems. Checklists serve to remind people how to do a task that they only do once in a while.
Checklists communicate what has been completed in a process. For example, a mortgage application may bounce between several people. At a glance, a checklist would communicate which specific steps, like credit checks, are complete and which ones still need to be done.
One of the benefits of checklists is simplicity. Some of the more complicated standardization tools (standard work combination sheets, process flowcharts, etc.) require an understanding of the specific document in order to use it. Don’t negate the simplicity by making the checklists too long and inclusive or by using big words when simple ones will do. People are in a hurry. Eloquence is nice in a novel, but not when a takt time clock is counting down.
A checklist is only effective if the process itself is effective. Take the time to observe someone using the checklist in a real-world situation. Make sure the results of the process are what you really need.
Preflight checklists help keep hundreds of people from plummeting to their deaths. Those lists should be extremely detailed. A checklist for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches probably doesn’t need a whole lot of steps. Don’t overcomplicate things.
Checklists can be very beneficial when used correctly, but make sure to keep the following points in mind:
You can prevent complacency like this by making the correct answers meander down the page so the ‘right’ answers don’t line up (i.e. don’t let all the answers be in the ‘Yes’ column). That way people have to actually read each question to fill in the right response.
You can also change the checklist frequently so people don’t get used to it. It slows them down, but that’s the point. Make them stop and check their work.
You can take this even further and have several checklists in active use. Shuffle up a stack and make each one a surprise. Use a template with cutouts to verify that the correct blocks were checked.
Managers, take care of your frontline employees. Don’t put them in a position where they feel pressured to cut corners. Make sure that the time it takes to fill out a checklist is included in the Standard Work.
Checklists are generally disliked by frontline employees. In most cases, the operator knows the process extremely well and the checklist just slows her down. The checklist might only help the operator catch a problem once out of a hundred times. The problem is that the operator doesn’t know which time that is. If it is not used regularly, there is a good chance of poor quality escaping.
If you really don’t like checklists, help make the process stronger so the lists are not necessary. Checklists are a red flag that a process is not very good and allows mistakes. Help make Standard Work better. For example, use 5S to match tools to the sequence of the process steps, or use poka yokes to prevent the mistakes that the checklist is designed to catch. Even if you don’t fully eliminate the checklist, you can reduce how much of a burden it is.
A checklist is a crutch for a poor process. If you make your processes robust, you can avoid the need for a checklist. Since you are likely strapped for time, get your team involved in process improvement.
Checklists should be used to strengthen a process, not as the primary method of standardization. Unfortunately, leaders often use checklists with some unreasonable expectations. Managers, don’t expect perfection from your employees just because you put a checklist in place.
You also face some leadership challenges when you use checklists. First, don’t let checklists or other standardization tools become a substitute for your presence at gemba (the actual place where work is done). Second, if you don’t enforce their proper use, you are setting a standard of poor discipline that will seep over into other areas.
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