We hear a lot about how to get things done. I’ve just finished Dr. Atul Gawande’s wonderful new book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Although Dr. Gawande is a surgeon and the context of his book is essentially medical, given the product recall turmoil sweeping the automotive industry, this is a very timely book about the power of a simple standard.
As a master kaizen instructor, I’ve come to know and understand just how impactful a simple checklist can be, irrespective of your work or business. The kaizen process is based on three steps: create a standard, follow it, and look for a better way. Repeat endlessly. Trying to improve and innovate without a standard as reference is like a journey with no starting point. And more often than not, the standard created is indeed a simple checklist.
In medicine, construction, aviation, and product design, the checklist is vital. It can quite simply save lives. At the very least, it can make anyone far more effective and professional. Many people, doctors and designers included—as Dr. Gawande makes clear in his book—take the view that a checklist is in someway limiting. They view their work as too complex and creative for a such a simple tool—which appears on the surface to be rigid, restrictive, and regimented—to have any usefulness in a demanding profession where every situation is different.
But that isn’t the case. Physicians in Dr. Gawande’s study who employed well-crafted standard surgical checklists saw double-digit improvement in their key performance metrics, like mortality and morbidity rates. The checklist proved to be an elegant solution to a host of medical problems.
And in the best design firms, the design process is standardized. But it’s not a paint-by-numbers approach. Rather, it’s high-level, phase-driven, and allows individual style to enter into how the process is actually executed. (The goal of a standard can never be to eliminate personal style and creativity!)
A checklist functions like a compulsory routine, or kata, in martial arts. Basic movements are taught first, and they provide the very framework needed to improvise as needed. It’s like driving a car: there are certain guidelines in effect and certain actions every driver takes to operate a car, but beyond that you can drive in a direction that suits you and your specific situation.
Creating a good standard, such as a checklist, while not complex, isn’t as easy as just jotting down some items in a column. It’s a bit more involved. (Which is another reason why checklists aren't used more often...there’s work involved!) So what makes a good one? Whether it’s a pilot’s pre-flight checklist, a surgeon’s protocol, or an autoworker’s guide to drivetrain assembly, there are two criteria:
Clarity. Assume an untrained eye will read it. Make it bullet-proof, specific, and complete, to capture the knowledge. Make it concrete and representative of the real world. Describe with precision the what, where, and how. That way, there’s no question of what constitutes a deviation or problem.
Consensus. Everyone who will employ the standard must agree on it. That forces a shared investigation to ensure that the standard represents the best known method or practice at that specific point in time. The activity in turn facilitates understanding.
Now, there are three basic steps required to deploy a checklist:
Establish a Best Practice. Make sure it’s the best-known method. Get input and feedback from those doing the work. Get agreement on it.
Make it Visible. Accessibility is key. Hiding it in a drawer won’t work. Post it or publish it so everyone will constantly be aware of it.
Communicate. Inform everyone. Prepare and train people. Test it out. Monitor effectiveness and usage.
What happens if the standard isn’t followed? Investigate! Find out why. Is there a better method? Was training adequate? Are there special circumstances? Redesign it if you need to. And keep searching for a better way.
A standard checklist is simply an established best-known method or practice followed rigorously until a better way is discovered, tested, and accepted. It’s actually a starting point, not the destination. It shows you where to begin the search for solutions. Done right it lets you know where there’s a problem. It prevents mistakes from being made, and, even worse, made twice. It lets you capture and retain knowledge and expertise. It makes you more productive, accurate, and precise.
And above all, it helps you stay safe.
Matthew E. May is a design strategist and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.