Checklists: Get Consensus and Follow Up

Matthew May just finished Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, a book high up on my own reading list. Matt discusses two criteria for checklists:

  • Clarity. Assume an untrained eye will read it. Make it bullet-proof, specific, and complete, to capture the knowledge. Make it concrete and representative of the real world. Describe with precision the what, where, and how. That way, there’s no question of what constitutes a deviation or problem.
  • Consensus. Everyone who will employ the standard must agree on it. That forces a shared investigation to ensure that the standard represents the best known method or practice at that specific point in time. The activity in turn facilitates understanding.

The consensus part is where most organizations fall short. This is resource intensive. But to get it right, managers must practice genchi genbutsu -- that is, they need to go see for themselves how the work is being done. This takes time and may be perceived as a distraction from "real" work (like putting out fires started because of the lack of good standard processes!).

May suggests three basic steps for deploying a checklist:

  1. Establish a Best Practice. Make sure it’s the best-known method. Get input and feedback from those doing the work. Get agreement on it.
  2. Make it Visible. Accessibility is key. Hiding it in a drawer won’t work. Post it or publish it so everyone will constantly be aware of it.
  3. Communicate. Inform everyone. Prepare and train people. Test it out. Monitor effectiveness and usage.

Step three also takes more time than some managers wish to invest. Training is expensive. It's also difficult to summon the energy after training for follow up. Folks are happy just to be done.

But I'm a huge believer in the power of checklists for lawyers. My experience is that a good checklist pays for itself almost immediately in saved time and reduced errors, sometimes recouping its production costs the first time it is deployed.

D. Mark Jackson

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