New Manager Checklist Manifesto: Accounting for Everything

February 2, 2017

In general, the Geneva airport runs like a Swiss watch, as the saying goes. But not every operation at the airport runs with the country’s trademark efficiency. As I was being checked in by SAS Airlines (the airline you might have read about at Harvard Business School), the woman at the counter realized she did not have a priority luggage tag, so she hopped over two other stations to fetch a handful.

At the Hilton Copenhagen a few days prior, I was at the bar ready to order a soy latte. The bartender held up a finger as she scanned her work area. Not finding what she wanted, she disappeared into the back and returned with a jug of orange juice to finish her cocktail for the only other customer present. In the meantime, I placed my order with the other bartender. He, too, had a moment of bewilderment, unable to find the soy milk apparently, before completing my order.

While these are minor hiccups and hardly noteworthy in terms of consequences, they do speak to a larger issue: occupational preparedness. If you want your organization to operate like a Swiss watch, all the pieces need to click. The benefits of a checklist include, but are not limited to, Everyone knowing what he or she needs and where to find it—without having to break stride (or hop over two other ticketing stations).

The Checklist Manifesto

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, can help elevate the preparedness and performance of your organization. It can help ensure none of your employees are missing an orange juice container, a bottle of soy, or priority tags. According to Dr. Gawande, doctors who have instituted a checklist prior to surgery have an increase in outcomes compared to those who find the idea trite. There is a reason why airline pilots—no matter the mastery or years at the craft—adhere to their checklists, too. Checklists work.

Many bars and bartenders have a checklist to ensure the bar is fully stocked prior to opening each day. SAS ticketing agents may one, too, for all I know. The trick, of course, is making sure not only to have the checklists, but ensure they’re followed so there are no delays or unfortunate discoveries at inopportune times.

Checklist Protocol

One of my closest friends has grown his business from two people to over 10,000 employees in eight years. When Checklist Manefesto was published in 2009, he followed its philosophy exactly. To this day, every employee helps establish their own checklist for each aspect of their job. Everything is accounted for, down to ordering the paper and ink for the laser printer based on specific volumes. These checklist instructions prevent staff from having to chase down supplies during the day when they are supposed to be working on more important matters. The checklists are sent in to corporate at regular intervals—indicating what was done, what wasn’t, and what modifications/deviations were made and why. Those modifications/deviations might, for instance, indicate corrective actions taken or alerts made in order to produce better outcomes for the client, customer, or other employees.

Put the onus of the checklists on your employees, so that they take more responsibility for ensuring the checklists are thorough and clear. You don’t need to impose one particular structure. Sometimes the simplest ones are the best. I know a firm that uses a simple checklist to mitigate risk around injury. Every new supervisor or manager is trained on what to do when there is an injury. There are only two things: 1) call 911 if appropriate and 2) login to the checklist on the server and ensure all items are completed. Because the two-item checklist is so simple, all supervisors and managers can act quickly and effectively. They don’t need to be trained to the point of exhaustion and tested on their memorization skills.

Once checklists becomes part of your organization, it is a bit like brushing your teeth. You don’t go to bed without completing the list. When new employees join the company, they often think this can’t be for real, and after a couple of days they stop completing their lists. Because there is a feedback loop on incomplete checklists, though, it does not take long to circle back and reiterate the importance of the checklist. At my friend’s company, all the checklists are monitored, and employees are given a percentage of misses. If they miss too many checklist items, they also miss their bonuses. If the verbal coaching does not get the employee to comply, then the missed bonus works most every time. If it doesn’t, these employees are likely not a good fit for the organization.

Checklist Zealots

Those who have used checklists for a while and see the benefits can get a bit overzealous. They begin to see every moment and task as an opportunity to add to a current checklist or create a new one. This often leads to checklists that are so long and burdensome that they eventually are not completed. Like cookies, one is good and three often can lead to problems down the line. Be prudent and focus on what is important.

Don’t over-automate the checklist process either. Keep it simple, so that employees don’t see it as an unnecessary burden.

How could you benefit from a checklist?

What aspects of your business would benefit from a checklist? How much smoother would your organization run if you and your employees each had a checklist? What differences might your customers notice?

Swiss watches might work efficiently and consistently, but even the Swiss can benefit from operational checklists! Reputations that are built on efficiency start with consistency and preparation. And there’s nothing better than a checklist to ensure consistency and preparation.


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