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Having a checklist should be standard operating procedure

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Under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success.”

― Atul Gawande


Dr. Atul Gawande is a surgeon based in Boston. He has worked hard to help surgeons in under-resourced areas of the world to become more proficient at their trade. But they found that the complication rate of comparable surgeries was far worse in these other countries.

Dr. Gawande’s quest to overcome this problem took him to, of all places, Boeing. Making a plane that is safe, the first time and every time, is not easy. Neither is flying one of these giant machines. How did Boeing do it? While there are many things necessary for this kind of success, one thing jumped out at Dr. Gawande: Checklists!

As an experiment, Dr. Gawande and his team came up with a checklist that was to be completed before each surgery. It took only two minutes to go through. The results? Complications were reduced by 35 percent, and deaths were reduced by 47 percent.

About the time I was learning about this transference of technology from the aerospace industry to healthcare, I was working with a client to improve their success in finding, hiring, motivating and retaining high-performance employees. Sometimes they did this well, but most of the time they got the wrong person for the wrong job and everyone was disappointed. So we developed a checklist.

We formatted the checklist into phases, and developed a policy that all of the items listed for each phase must be checked off and signed off before moving to the next phase. Before establishing this system, they often would post a job opening long before they had a job description, or begin interviewing before they had decided on what the qualifications for the job were, or would hire a person before they knew where their workplace would be.

The checklist prevented these errors. Each step was in logical sequence. Every step was supported by the steps leading up to it.

While they did not statistically gauge the success, they have found that, quite simply, if they follow this procedure, they find and hire the right person and the job is well done. When they sidestep the procedure, problems inevitably develop.

Do you have checklists in your workplace? Maybe you call them Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), but regardless of the label, having your key processes standardized and written down will almost assuredly improve the reliability of the outcome.

Do you have multiple people performing the same task? Do the outcomes vary from one person to the next? Is one person always faster? If you have them each write down precisely what steps they follow, you can pick the best from each list and come up with a checklist that gives the best quality in the least amount of time. And by involving the people that are charged with following the process, you are sure to get better buy-in.


Dave Bartholomew is the founder of Ascent Advising LLC, working with “corner office” people around the globe to define and achieve their unique definition of success. He and is wife, Nancy, co-founded Simply Living Farm, a shop in Leavenworth providing goods for a sustainable life. He can be reached at Dave@AscentAdvising.com.