Checklists started by making risky situations like landing planes and surgical operations safer. These activities are performed by expert pilots and surgeons, who have practiced them thousands of times. However, the brain can only remember so much, especially in the midst of stressful situations. Doing something over and over again also creates a false sense of confidence and can lull an expert into skipping important steps or cutting corners. After reading an excellent book called The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Done Right by Atul Gawande, I think we should be using checklists in many business process besides the most dangerous ones.
Gawande explains in his book that checklists hit the scene in the 1930s when a group of test pilots came up with the first one after seeing a friend stall and crash a plane during a test flight. The accident investigation revealed that with the “newer” planes, there were too many things for one man to track including “four engines, each with its own oil-fuel mix, the retractable landing gear, the wing flaps, etc.” Planes have obviously become increasingly more complex and now checklists are built into the process of operating advanced aircraft. Operating on human beings is the same when you consider pre-op, anesthesia, patient history, allergies, post-op, etc. where checklists have demonstrated measurable improvements in outcomes. It stands to reason that business users performing processes like sales, accounting, customer support, marketing, etc. could similarly benefit from using checklists.
You can find relatives of checklists in the business world today. Call scripting for service center agents is a popular use case. The agents use on-line wizards to walk through a process like an RMA or some other transaction. The list may not tell the agent every word he or she must say but it should guide the high level steps they take. We have a sales checklist at salesforce to review when we move an opportunity from one stage to the next. It reminds us to check if we have an ROI study completed, budget confirmation, etc. The checklist doesn’t tell someone how to do their job or provide a detailed recipe for everything under the sun. Its purpose is to focus on the 5 to 7 important things that make or break a process. Checklists can also simplify complex processes into bite-sized chunks that can be consumed as a process unfolds. A customer on-boarding checklist is a great example. Anytime a new customer joins a company, there could be a shared checklist among sales and service to guarantee the important steps like gathering accurate information, guiding service provisioning, distributing member cards, etc. are addressed.
Putting a checklist to use doesn’t necessarily require fancy technology. Before airplanes went fully electronic, checklists were in binders next to the pilot’s seats. Spreadsheets, memory tools like Evernote and other systems can manage a checklist. The important thing is the list represents what is most important, it is built as a team, and can evolve as the business changes. Where could you use a checklist in your business or personal life?