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It’s Just a Checklist

by | Jul 6, 2021 | Business, Processes

Better business almost always involves a level of consistency, for you, for the people who do the work and for your customers and clients and for the market.

Systems generally are designed to do things more consistently but they also bring some other benefits, I think these are the most important:

  • Creating the time for you to focus on what you love;
  • Unlocking sustainable profits; and
  • Reducing risks and uncertainty.

I don’t mention anything about technology, software, hardware, process design and so on. All of these things can help to support how a process is implemented, but none of them can design the process, nor its purpose. Those things won’t tell you how you customers feel, or what their reaction will be. Yet we also can’t determine how to measure those things unless you have some consistency yourself.  Your systems start with ‘You’ – They should free you to be you. To do that they need to be designed to do it.  That’s why I am a fan of checklists.

I recommend starting simply, starting with the simplest of tools, a pad of paper and a writing implement, for this I prefer a pencil, because it can be rubbed out and rewritten as you spot things.

Start simply. As you work with, for example, onboarding a new customer, just write down the steps that you take. Then the next time you do that, follow the checklist. I warn you now, it will not work. That’s why I recommend using a pencil. Add to it, move things, hone the process. Then use it again. Hone it again, and so on. You’ll give a more consistent experience, and you’ll learn consistently too.

1 – Simple checklists aren’t about managing complexity.
They are about seeking consistency and that brings the opportunity to improve and hone.

A quick aside, if you are using commercial software to support your business process remember that it will have been written by people working to someone else’s specification. The chances of it being a perfect fit for our own ideal business system is slim. That means we are going to compromise, and it is better to do that knowing what has been compromised than simply accepting a compromised system as ‘the best we can do’ and not really understanding with clarity what impact those enforced compromises will have.

There is something else that happens here as a result of this work. You start to really know your process inside out. When you are asked by a client, or a prospect, a question like “what happens now?” then you know. It becomes second nature. That brings confidence to you. The question simpler triggers your memory of the checklist and you can recall and speak of it easily.

2 – Checklists bring a consistency and that consistency brings certainty to all.
In my experience giving your clients and prospects certainty is the single biggest indicator of their continued support for what you do. Any alternative supplier brings uncertainty, especially if they don’t have the checklists you have developed.

However, familiarity is dangerous and sometimes after you have used a checklist for a while it’s easy to assume that you know what it says. I’ve certainly spent time and energy developing checklists for things and then thought I can hold it in my head without writing it down, and then referring back to it when I have some similar work to do. It is always a mistake. 

I recall I developed a checklist for making changes to the business website. I use a hosting provider that has a one click cloning facility so it is very quick and very easy to create a ’staging’ or ‘test’ copy of the website, and that is the first step of the checklist. Then there are steps to make and check the changes and finally a step to copy the clone back to the live version, knowing it would work.

Except there are some little things I’ve learned to check along the way, they are too detailed to explain here, but suffice to say that if you miss them out there is a risk the change will break things. Without the checklist I always miss one or two of these ‘sub-steps’. With it, I never do.

3 – Very few can remember every step precisely, don’t try.
The act of writing and the repetitious use of the checklist ensures that important small steps are not forgotten.

There is a risk that a simple checklist may be seen as too trivial for a serious business but then when I look at those markets where businesses are working on critical matters, life critical matters, like aviation or medicine, checklists are everywhere. Nobody questions the pilot and the co-pilots memory when they open up the checklist for the flight and run through it top to bottom cross checking and double checking everything. Yet, do you show the same diligence when you get in your car, do you check visually at least that the tyres are not looking flat. It takes a moment, it could save someone’s life, perhaps your own.

4 – Every profession where life is at risk uses checklists.
When you never miss a vital check, and hone the process as you learn,  you will minimises or eliminates risk and build a business with an impressive track record of consistency, assurance, and success.

Further reading: If you want to dig further under the skin of checklists it’s worth reading ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Atul Gawande, and can find out more and buy the book here…

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Written by: William Buist - all rights reserved.