Can The Lowly Checklist Improve Corporate Performance?

Can The Lowly Checklist Improve Corporate Performance?

Checklists are for losers, for wedding planners, for those types in IT or in Engineering and their machines. What use have I for a checklist? After all I know what I am doing. I am the expert, I am the decision maker, and I don’t need peers questioning my ability let alone my sanity. And, anyways, I have enough paper work to contend with as it is. Sound familiar?

This is exactly what I used to think until I came across this article by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker. It was one of those eureka moments, a sudden realization of ‘oh my gosh…why aren’t I doing this’.

Mr. Gawande’s findings challenge doctors in Intensive Care Units to go back to basics and start adopting checklists to save lives, and he argues very convincingly that a lot of deaths and costly complications would be avoided all together if only doctors weren’t so trusting in their own abilities, namely, their memory. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it also set me free once I decided to apply this logic to management. How many times had I facilitated a meeting and afterwards thought that I could have done better? Would GAP have fared better on their recent re-branding if they’d had a simple checklist; did someone forget to ask their customers what they thought of the re-brand? Would a daily checklist keep you more abreast of what’s going on in your business? Can a check list help you make fewer mistakes, keep you on a high for longer?

Checklists date back to the 1930’s. The checklist was the ingenious solution to a difficult problem encountered by an enterprising team of test pilots. The year is 1935 and the US Air Force has just issued a tender for a new long range bomber. Boeing unleash its B-17 bomber, it is yet to be christened ‘the flying fortress’; it is mighty to behold, state of the art technologies and super sleek, there is nothing to match its presence and performance; it IS the plane the Air Force has always wanted. Except that the Air Force did not recommend it! The ‘flying fortress’ crashed on its test flight killing two of the five crew and was deemed “too much airplane for one man to fly”. However, those entrepreneurial test pilots did not let up and worked at a solution until they devised the simplistic ‘pilot’s checklist’. As Mr. Gawande notes ‘..with the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident..’. I’d argue their solution is responsible for the legend that became the ‘flying fortress’.

So checklists help pilots and maybe doctors, big deal! Is there a place for them in high growth companies in today’s challenging economic realities? Where can they be applied in performance management? Here are some questions raised by my clients which checklists helped address directly and in doing so improved their bottom line performance: Which mundane processes when overlooked impact your customers or your profits? Can a simple quick check list improve product delivery? Have you accepted a level of downtime in your manufacturing process simply because there are no maintenance checklists and your machines are failing all too often? Are your competitors’ accessing sensitive information simply because there’s no checklist in place at the front desk or no access control lists on your computer systems? Will a pre-budget prep checklist act as a memory jolt and improve the way your senior management team prepares for the budget? How could checklists help us in disaster? How many CEOs led their companies through the recent upheavals in Japan, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain with a simple checklist at hand to ensure their teams had everything covered?

Today’s challenge.

Come up with a checklist for you and your team so that they are better prepared for your next quarterly meeting. I have now introduced checklists for my clients’ quarterly planning meetings. The result is that everyone is better prepared and their goal setting for the following quarter has become far more accurate.

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