A Checkmark for Checklists

Checklists are more than a to do list. Whereas a to do list reflects things that we are planning to do, checklists represent a more detailed instruction for a specific task. Checklists offer a recipe or an order of operations. Do this, then that. Checklists are simply formalized routines. They build quality and reliability in behavior which are positive things. The business process guru, W. Edwards Deming wrote, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” Checklists are a form of written process. They reflect that what we’re trying to do isn’t accidental, it’s intentional. Checklists both create and reflect competence. We can’t master what we don’t understand. Checklists provide clarity as to direction. They are a precursor, therefore, to mastery. Where we can detail step by step what we’re doing, we’re reflecting understanding and purpose. The clearer the checklist, the better known the process. By pursuing, we’re increasing the chances for delivering reliable outcomes.

Some criticize checklists for being too restrictive. We lose the opportunity for spontaneity or improvisation where we rigidly adhere to a checklist. Some suggest innovation, art, or other creative endeavor are inhibited with rigid checklists. However, even in these areas checklists provide clarity, calm, and a sense of control over a process. Ironically, there are several forms of art where the recognition of a checklist is freeing. Checklists build structure around an activity. They provide a skeleton upon which detail can be fleshed out. Author Stephen Pressfield has written a number of books both fiction and non-fiction. He has written screenplays as well. In Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t Pressfield writes about his time spent in Hollywood learning to write for movies. “I learned the principles of screenplay structure. A movie script is composed of three acts. Act One: page 1 to about 25. Act Two: page 25 to about page 75-85. Act Three to the finish, page 105-120. When someone first told me this (no doubt another fledgling writer) I immediately thought, ‘What formulaic bullshit! I’m not gonna be a slave to that!’ Wrong. If there is a single principle that is indispensable to structuring any kind of narrative, it is this: Break the piece down into three parts—beginning, middle, and end.” Sounds like a checklist works just fine for Pressfield as well.

They can be the root of reliable and consistent performances. Checklists are an essential component to professions like pilots, surgeons, health care workers, and engineers. All of these professions operate in high stakes environments. The cost of error is simply too high. The risk associated with flawed performance means that offering operators the autonomy of just winging things and figuring things out on the fly is laughable. The professions we’ve noted include some of the most educated and strictly trained participants. It’s not easy becoming a pilot or a surgeon. They work very hard to develop their domain knowledge. Yet, as trained as they may be, they depend on checklists. Is a surgeon insulted at the basic instruction as to both when and how to wash their hands? No, it increases their confidence in their environment. In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande, writes of how health care professionals had reluctance about following a checklist themselves but wanted health care workers that offered them care directly to follow them. Gawande writes, “Then we asked the staff one more question. ‘If you were having an operation,’ we asked, ‘would you want the checklist to be used?’ A full 93 percent said yes.” The staff came to see that following a checklist wasn’t one more bureaucratic burden being imposed but a tool to help them help others. Moreover, it was something they wanted others to use where their personal care was at stake.

In another example, handling guns is serious business. An acronym that serves as a checklist to help people handle guns safely taught in courses is ACTS. When we handle a gun we are to Assume it is loaded and Act accordingly. The foremost responsibility when handling a gun is to Control the muzzle angle. We want to ensure the weapon is pointed safely away from causing any inadvertent harm. When handling guns it’s important to keep our finger off the Trigger. Finally, when receiving or passing a gun we’re to See/Show that it is empty. ACTS: Assume, Control, Trigger, Show serve to guide people how to safely handle guns to reduce problems. The acronym has been created over time based on the reality of what happens when these steps aren’t followed. A checklist like ACTS represents hard won wisdom learned from experience. The checklist provides confidence based on the competence they offer as a result of producing reliable outcomes repeatedly. Checklists are created in order to offer an opportunity to gain from past pains.

In his book Legacy, James Kerr distinguishes between red and blue zones. Red zones, Kerr suggests, are those that signify intense pressure where we can lose control of our ability to think and succumb to emotions and physical stress. Red zones occur where things of importance are at stake. They can involve a deadline and a sense of urgency. Red zones arise where there’s an abundance of inputs and distractions. Emotions may also be high. Red zones may involve aggression, conflict, or dispute. Regardless of the occasion, a red zone event taxes our ability to perform at our best. In order to give ourselves a chance Kerr suggests we build awareness of our vulnerability to these kinds of circumstances. Where we can anticipate or begin to sense that we’re responding to a red zone situation we can plan and prepare ourselves to become better at remaining in control. Kerr encourages us as we enter red zone activities to take time to control our breathing. By focusing on slowing things down we can insert a checklist to guide us. Kerr recommends mantras as a form of checklist to implement. He draws on the experiences of pilots as an example. Pilots have checklists they depend on as part of their pre-flight and post-flight routines. Moreover, they also have checklists to help them manage emergencies that may arise during flight. If they can’t lean on a specific checklist, they draw on a mantra to manage their mental processing. Pilots are taught to: Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. First, fly the plane, ensure it remains in the air, then determine where you’re heading, third, communicate with ground control to let others know where you are. The mantra guides thinking and helps focus a pilot’s attention where it is best needed in trying times. These mental checklists guide and save lives. A common characteristic of mantras, Kerr observes, is that they come in threes. They share a beginning, middle, and end as do all stories. Kerr notes the value of a checklist even in the form of a mantra is that they offer, “Clear thought. Clear talk. Clear task. Mantras act as a checklist that replaces chaos with clarity and confusion with action. Our mantras can help us shift from stress to success giving us a chance under difficult circumstances.

Checklists can be very specific and imply zero deviation. They can also serve as a high level framework within which a large level of flexibility is available as we’ve seen in our gun handling and aviator examples. Our checklists don’t have to be set in stone. There are tasks I’m still responsible for that before I do them I write a “checklist” by hand in my notebook. I then do the task working through each element written down. It’s an informal way of directing and tracking my activity but serves as well as a detailed spreadsheet. At Broker Builder we’re not operating in critical processes as our pilots, surgeons, and engineers, yet, we have checklists for several tasks. We have daily, weekly, and monthly workflows that are bult around checklists that provide us with knowledge of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. They are great training tools and provide clear direction to work through. They help ensure the likelihood that our “I’s” are dotted and our “t’s” crossed. For example, we have detailed WIPs or Work Instruction Procedures which include videos, written instructions, and checklists in spreadsheets which can be used to track efforts. These form the basis of training. They provide our team with structure to manage tasks and represent years of effort. Each time we’ve encountered an error in the past, we’ve reviewed our checklists to help us avoid future repeats of an issue. Checklists serve to provide confidence in our efforts. We know by doing the things listed we’re less likely to miss something important. The checklist helps us keep handing the ball forward and reduces the chances for fumbles.

However, once a task is taught and accountability for it assigned, then how these resources are utilized is a personal choice. Much autonomy can be made available. The timing of the task may have a window of flexibility that the user is able to choose to do when it’s convenient for them. The task itself may have flexibility with respect to technique. Perhaps, they prefer doing one particular element before another. They can make these decisions to suit their desires. Moreover, even though checklists offer structure around a given task, those responsible may be able to have autonomy related to determining who performs these task. The team is able to help each other out to ensure the task is done when needed but also when it fits certain people’s life schedules. Even though checklists may sound constraining, there’s still great opportunity for autonomy.

Sales guru, Jeb Blount has written a number of books on selling as well as offering all kinds of courses on various aspects of the sales process. In spite of his expertise, or, perhaps, because of his expertise, he holds himself to using checklists as he continues to pursue his own sales efforts. In his book Virtual Selling, Blount writes, “When I say checklist, I mean a physical checklist that is printed and laminated. Before EVERY call, I go through each step on the checklist and use a dry erase marker to check through each item on the list.” Professionals aren’t insulted by checklists. They seem them not as stifling but serving. Their ability to be good in their domain is dependent on diligently following the process set out by a checklist.

Checklists can also help us stay motivated. Just like ticking something off your to do list, making progress checking off items on a checklist gives us a sense of making progress. This is rewarding to us. Checks reflect progress. Peter Hollins in The Science of Self-Discipline notes that Psychologists have termed this the Endowed Progress Effect. Where we see that we’ve made some progress towards an objective, our investment in continuing to stay the course grows. We’re motivated by the view of what we’re building behind us. Knocking off steps along our checklist provide objective evidence of our efforts and help us connect the dots between our efforts and progress. Moreover, as we see that we’re getting close to the end of our checklist, our motivation is fueled again. As we sense the finish line we dig in with renewed vigor and press on to finalize. Psychologists have seen this effect be replicated in several areas. They refer to this as Goal Proximity. Our brains can smell the finish line. As we see those last few items left for us on a checklist, we’re invigorated, energized to stay the course. Working with checklists allows us to see what we’ve done. There sits a tangible reflection of our efforts for a period. For those of us that our knowledge workers it’s harder and harder to get objective evidence of our efforts. Checklists help.

Checklists reflect competence. They show that what you’re doing is purposeful and in pursuit of a proven process. Checklists provide comfort and confidence. They guide our efforts. Moreover, they offer motivation and reflect both progress made as well as proximity to our target. There are plenty of reasons to give checkmarks for checklists. Are there ways you can look to increase your reliance on checklists during your workday in order to improve your reliability and efficiency?