Don’t Be Stupid. Use a Checklist.

As a new father, I can feel the lack of sleep finally catching up with me – especially in the mornings. Leaving my house for work became quite frustrating as I started forgetting important items. On Monday, I forgot to bring my lunch with me. On Tuesday, I forgot my smoothie that was to be my breakfast. Wednesday, my keys; Thursday, my laptop. Fortunately, I was able to go back for my keys and laptop before I drove away from my home, but it was unnerving that I had become so forgetful.
Morning Checklist Post-it
By Thursday night, I was desperate for a solution to my morning forgetfulness. So, to combat the problem, I made a checklist. I took a post-it note and listed the items that I wanted to be sure to bring with me each morning to work. Here’s my list:

  • Phone
  • Keys
  • Wallet
  • Backpack
  • Laptop (in backpack)
  • Lunch
  • Breakfast Drink

I put this post-it checklist right at eye level on my front door. The next day, I arrived at work without anything missing. The entire next week as well – no forgotten items. My checklist solved my problem quickly, easily, and cheaply.

Checklists Prevent Deviations and Errors

This experience reminded me of the power of checklists. Checking boxes helps us follow standard procedure. Most deviations from a standard process are a result of forgetfulness or trying to be too efficient (being too busy or lazy). Seeing each step clearly spelled out in a simple list eliminates forgetfulness and adds accountability to complete each step.

Checklists Save Lives and Money

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch, talk about just how powerful checklists can be. When Michigan intensive care units (ICUs) created a five-step checklist for how to insert an IV, occurrences of infected lines disappeared. The checklist saved the hospitals an estimated $175 million as well as 1,500 lives. More surprising is how simple the checklist was. Step one, wash hands before inserting IV; Step two, clean patient’s skin with antiseptic. The list wasn’t new science, it just helped the doctors and nurses remember each step and slow down to perform them all.

So how can I use the power of checklists in my supply chain? Our company’s operations have many small procedures that capture and track data as our inventory flows through our processes. Here are just a few processes that have benefited from a checklist:

  • Receiving product – a checklist makes sure all the information for each inventory receipt is correctly recorded in our accounting system
  • Quarterly Vendor Scorecard Reviews – a checklist helps ensure we analyze each vendor on every aspect important to our company, such as communication and lead time, not just price
  • Sales and Operations Process – a checklist keeps our forecasts more accurate as it asks us to review and check off each significant customer each month
  • Customer Packaging and Routing Requirements – checklists for key customers help our warehouse team prepare shipments to each customer’s specific requirements to avoid fines and chargebacks
  • Legal Compliance Records – a checklist helps us create and keep all the necessary legal paperwork necessary for a future compliance audit

Ideally, the checklist prints automatically as the process begins. For example, the customer requirement checklist prints on the pick sheet. When the checklist cannot be automatically pirnted, we print a stack of half-page or one-page checklists in advance that can easily be stapled to the front of a paperwork packet. The convenience of having the checklist easily attached helps ensure it gets used.

Checklist Implementation – Overcoming Barriers and Resistance

One major reason checklists aren’t used more frequently is that the process seems too basic to require one. Remembering to bring everything with me to work is an easy process, and most people probably can handle it just fine without a checklist. Had someone else mandated I follow a checklist each morning, I might have become offended that my competence was in question. However, as resistant as I may be, I can’t deny that my morning checklist helps me avoid errors. Thus, I have learned to see the value of checklists for standard work. Sharing stories of checklist successes, such as at the Michigan ICUs, can help others also realize the value of checklist. Involving those using the checklist in their creation, just as I wrote my own, can get their buy in.

The other primary cause of checklist scarcity is the fact that we don’t often review processes that have been in place for some time. Even though writing out my morning checklist only took 20 seconds, nothing motivated me to make it until I forgot something four days in a row. The same is true with processes at work. Until repeated and significant mistakes occur, I likely won’t spend time building a checklist for a process. However, spending a little time now can help avoid larger issues in the future.

To move myself from a reactive to a proactive approach, I have scheduled 15 minutes each week during a less-busy time of day to review a process. If I can create one useful checklist each week, I’ll be well on my way to better discipline and fewer process errors.

To read even more about the power of checklists, check out Chip and Dan Heath’s Fast Company article Heroic Checklist. I also highly recommend their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, which talks more about checklists in pages 220-224.

Share this article

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *