The Power of Checklists to Help You Manage Your Growing Business

Running a business is hard work. As a small business owner, you don’t wear many hats, you wear them all. Managing employees, customer support, IT issues, accounting, legal issues, and on and on. Business owners need to keep so many plates spinning that without the proper infrastructure it’s almost inevitable that some plates will fall. While all sorts of sophisticated software and processes exist to help you manage and grow your business, there is one simple tool that can help streamline and optimize your business operations, the checklist.

Atul Gawande

While the concept of a checklist has been around for centuries, Atul Gawande, a surgeon, bestselling author, and public health researcher can be credited with bringing the power of checklist to the mainstream. In his 2009 book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right Gawande explains how the simple checklist has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in fields as diverse as medicine, aviation, and construction.

“Know-how and sophistication have increased remarkably… so has our struggle to deliver on them,” he writes. He saw ineptitude, when professionals fail to perform routine duties, even when the proper procedure is known, as the leading cause of trouble not only in medicine but it fields as diverse as meteorology, law, software design, banking, and foreign intelligence. Checklists are used by pilots when preparing for takeoff, surgeons when preparing for surgery, and construction managers to make sure the countless tasks required to build a skyscraper happen in the proper order.

While the checklist is used in sophisticated fields every day, it’s power is not limited to complex areas. Any business owner can leverage the power of checklists to simplify operations and ensure proper procedures are followed by all team members.

How the Checklist can help you manage your business

Most of us use a checklist when going to the grocery store, planning an event, or Christmas shopping. It’s not because we can’t remember everything, it’s to protect against forgetting something. Or doing something in the wrong order.

Likewise, the checklist can help make sure that routine tasks are performed correctly and consistently by all team members, whether you are there or not. The checklist builds on the experience and people’s knowledge to make sure your team isn’t solving the same problem over and over again. Once a problem has been solved, it should stay solved.

The checklist can help you and your employees:

  • Improve communication between employees, clients, or vendors – if a customer order is going to be delayed, what steps will you take to communicate with the customer and minimize potential dissatisfaction?
  • Avoid dumb mistakes – nothing is more frustrating than encountering a problem that should have been avoided. Checklists ensure that everyone on the team is performing tasks the same way.
  • Improve efficiency – employees can finish tasks faster if they are following guidelines rather than thinking through the problem themselves.
  • Improve accountability – employees will have a written expectation of procedures to be followed. Your business and employees will be more effective if everyone is on the same page and follow the same best practices.
  • Delegate better – Good Managers know that a key to increased productivity is to delegate as much as possible, and checklists make it easier to do that. It might seem like more work (“I’ll just do it myself”), but in the long-, and even short-run, creating a checklist that lays out steps that could be missed will start paying dividends quickly.

Checklists Help Manage Uncertain Situations

While a checklist might seem like overkill during normal operations, they could be a lifesaver when things aren’t normal. They will bring stability during an emergency or when there is chaos. After studying the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gawande concluded that when there are emergencies, “under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are REQUIRED for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided – and even enhanced – by procedure.”

If an emergency came up and you or a manager wasn’t available, would your employees know how to handle specific situations?

Where you can use a checklist

Every business is different. As a business owner, it’s up to you to identify what areas a written checklist you and your employees can follow are beneficial. Here are some examples of situations a checklist can be invaluable.

  • Onboarding a new customer – make sure you put your best foot forward and complete whatever steps will make your customers satisfied.
  • Using specific software or machinery – especially if there are tasks that don’t happen very often, having a checklist can help save you and your employees time.
  • Marketing material – if you have blog posts or social media activity, what steps should you consistently be following to make sure your posts have maximum reach (good art, catchy headlines, shared with network, etc.)
  • Bringing on a new employee – make sure all the proper paperwork is completed, any technological issues (i.e. access to software), and new employees are walked through the important elements of their new job.
  • Working with a new vendor – make sure all the steps required for billing, reviewing contract info, maintaining contact information, any access to technology, etc.

Do-Confirm vs Read-Do Checklists

In his work on the checklist, Gawande identified two types of checklists, “do-confirm” and a “read-do” checklist. In a do-confirm checklist, the user can perform the necessary tasks but upon completion can read the checklist to make sure all steps were followed. A read-do checklist is meant to be performed one step at a time, with the user following each step of the way, like a recipe.

What to avoid when using checklists in your business

Don’t go overboard. You might be tempted to create a checklist for everything and anything that has to do with your business. Avoid that temptation. You should make sure a checklist is necessary before introducing more paperwork to your business. Give your employees the autonomy to solve problems for themselves. Nobody likes to be micro-managed and going overboard with unnecessary checklists can make employees feel like they are being talked down to.

Make sure checklists are useful. After ensuring that the checklist is helping your operations, and you’ve completed the first draft, go over it with those who will use it to make sure it is clear. Avoid bad checklists, which Gawande explains “are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical.”

Creating checklists for maximum benefit

If you are ready to start using checklists in your business, there are some concepts to keep in mind to make sure you are getting maximum value.

  • Start slow and avoid introducing a bunch of new procedures for employees all at once. Make sure it is necessary and not adding complexity where it’s not needed.
  • Communication is key. Involve team members, they might have insight that will make the checklist more actionable. Make sure your team understands the reasoning behind the checklist. The goal isn’t more paperwork, rather improved efficiency and operations. Make sure employees understand the checklist is there to help them do their job better.
  • When drafting a checklist, start with a clear and concise objective for the checklist. Make sure it is needed and addressing a business process that will help your business improve. Are you standardizing how to manage a specific customer complaint? Is it a procedure for dealing with a client, customer, or vendor? A process for operating a machine, on-boarding new customers or employees, closing the store for the day, even how to troubleshoot an internet connection. Make sure the checklist’s objective is clear and concise. Make the checklist as simple as it needs to be, but not anymore.
  • Gawande writes that good checklists are precise, efficient, to the point, easy to use, provide reminders of the important steps, and perhaps most importantly practical. Don’t make it overly complicated. Organize your checklist to make sure it flows logically from step to step. Use simple and clear sentences, write in a clear format, and make sure it fits on one page.
  • Validate your checklist in the real world. Is it being used consistently in the manner desired? Is it achieving the objective you want? How can it be improved? After the checklist has been used in the real world several times, it might be due for a revision.
  • Revisit the checklist periodically to ensure all steps are still applicable, or if there is any room for improvement. Mark the date of creation as it will help you and your employees identify checklists that are due for a revision. It might help to set a date to review the checklist.
  • Make sure your employees know the checklist exists and where to find it. A detailed checklist is worthless if nobody uses it.

Once you’ve implemented a few checklists in your business, you’ll learn to trust them as valuable tools to help you manage and grow your business.

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