Why You Need to Use Checklists

Humans tend to think that we’re consistent, but the truth is that we are not. Checklists, though… they are consistent. Checklists keep you on track, and they help remind you of important things.

Have you ever been performing a multiple-step task that you have done a hundred times, only to find that you didn’t do one important thing at the beginning, that it just slipped your mind?

According to the Lean Practitioners Field Guide, humans are at best, two or three “sigma”. This means that for every million opportunities, a typical human will make an error approximately 66,000 times, or 6.6% of the time, when working with their memory alone.

Have you ever been learning a multi-step task, for which there is no official task list, so you jot down notes for your own reference, and come to find when trying to do it yourself that you’d missed a step in the learning process?

Now the time you spent learning, was not as effective as it could be, and you’re never going to get it right with the notes you have. It’s back to the drawing board for you because this has to be perfected before you can move forward.

The goal of the Lean process is to reach six sigma: a six sigma process is one in which 99.99966% of all opportunities to produce some feature of a part are statistically expected to be free of defects (3.4 defective features per million opportunities).

Put simply, the six sigma plan is to perfect your abilities. But how?

If humans are by nature more error prone than we like to think we are, what is the best solution for reducing missed opportunities or errors?

Whether you’re just starting out, or you’ve been running your business for awhile, following a checklist is the best proven way to make sure that the work you do is consistently error free.

It’s so simple: Write things down. Get them out of your head, because your head will fail you! Organize these things, and put them before you where you can work through them in the light of day.

Checklists are the solution

Good checklists, are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.

Atul Gawande. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right Tweet

Honestly, it’s such a simple and elegant solution. Just write it down. Why don’t we do that? I have seen my own self not do that, and I’ve seen my professional counterparts do the same. We don’t make checklists, we fly through it a few times and it becomes rote, and it’s all in our heads, where it’s safe, right? Most of the time. All but about 6.6% of the time. Which client, or project, or idea, will be the one that isn’t safe? The one that fails because it was done wrong?

Things we say #1 “I don’t need a checklist, I work alone and I remember all the steps just fine.”

Even solitary professions, such as lawyers, benefit from the use of checklists. Jules Epstein writes in “Do Lawyers Need Checklists to Reduce Error?”, “For San Francisco Chief Defender Jeff Adachi, checklists have multiple utility – they reduce error, increase team communication and collaboration, and serve as a useful training tool, an accountability measure, and a standard to assess whether an institutional office has sufficient resources to operate effectively.”

Using a checklist mitigates against our brains getting tired or slow due to lack of sleep or food, or emotional distraction.

But more important to your future… you may be working alone right now, but ideally you won’t be working alone at some point. Hopefully someday, you can start outsourcing work that is not in your zone of genius, enjoy your work more, and theoretically work less.

It’s nearly impossible to effectively outsource that work without clear expectations and a straightforward method of measuring performance. A checklist should be the front page of any SOP, or Standard Operating Procedure, for ease of training and ease of managing accountability for anyone you hire to support you. Give them the tools they need to do the job the way you need it done; otherwise you’re setting everyone up for failure, including yourself.

Things we say #2 “Checklists take too long to use.”

You mention that some doctors object on the grounds that checklists take too long. Do they? If they're badly designed. One of the fascinating things to me was going to visit Boeing's checklist factory, where they make over 100 checklists a year and design them in ways that pilots can actually use them in a time crush. They helped us design ours. We set a target that no step along the way would take more than 60 seconds and the whole process should be, in routine situations, under two minutes total.

Atul Gawande. “How to Make Doctors Better,” Time Magazine Tweet

True though it may be that you will need to invest a little time up front to create your checklist, the end result will be greater efficiency and a higher degree of perfection. And what’s more, as discussed above, once it’s out of your head and ready to be outsourced to someone else, it can be outsourced to many “someone elses”, allowing you to grow even more, and to do it confidently.

At Cascadia, we love checklists! We have them for almost every necessary function. Of course it has taken us some time to come up with the right checklists for us, but it’s always worth the effort to get everyone on the same page, and allow everyone a high level view of that task. Any one of us can confidently begin any number of tasks, even if it is not our everyday job. This is thanks in huge part to our checklists.

In a later blog we’ll cover some different ways we’ve had success with checklists, so stay tuned for bright ideas!

About the Author
Rachel Johnson Greer is a global business strategist who specializes in helping entrepreneurs increase their internet product sales, curate their brand image online and avoid catastrophic legal threats. After getting her MBA in international business at Seattle University, she spent nearly a decade at Amazon working in product development. Since then, Rachel has founded companies that reached both multi-six figure and multi-seven figure growth in under three years.

As a business coach, she supports clients in everything from international product expansion to 4x-ing their sales through online retailers. Rachel is frequently sought out by the media and has appeared on the Today Show, CNBC, Business Insider, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. When she’s not working with clients, she’s scaring friends at parties with stories about the most problematic online products she’s found in their homes. She lives in Seattle, Washington.