11 Steps To More Effective Checklists

The modern world is full of processes. Almost everything we do at work has a defined process that needs to be followed. Numerous process frameworks like ISO, CMM, etc. have come up and been adopted by various sectors. All these frameworks have one very important common element – the CHECKLIST. Process and quality audits rely heavily on various checklists for evidences of all key steps and actions and their levels of compliance with the defined process. So, if checklists are so important, then they need to be extremely effective. Let’s talk about a few things to keep in mind when creating checklists that deliver the expected results.

  • Clear purpose and specific items: Every checklist must have a clear purpose and specific items (keeping in mind that the checklist doesn’t run into several pages so as to be confused with a manual). The general purpose of a checklist is to ensure that all key steps have been performed and it has been verified that the results are as expected. If detailed descriptions for any check items are required, they should be in the manual and a reference to the relevant section of the manual should be added to the check item in question. The check list should be light-weight and simple to go through even when there is a shortage in time.
  • Talk to the experts: When creating a checklist, relying completely on your own knowledge or understanding of a process may not always be enough. Getting other people involved, specially those with ample experience in the concerned area of the checklist’s application, is always a good idea as you will often get different points of view and scenarios that you may not have encountered yourself. Collaboration during the checklist creation process goes a long way in drastically enhancing the effectiveness and completeness of the checklist.
  • Individual sub-set/secondary checklists: Even if there is an extensive and standardized checklist for a workflow, the individual operator may have a sub-set of specific check items that he must create himself. This is very important because even though the overall process may be standardized, there are often exceptions that are applicable to particular clients or cases. These exceptions must be part of the check-list as a sub-set of the standard checklist. The logic for this is very simple. When we create a process, we assume the standard operational workflow, and this process is changed only when there is a change in the standard operational workflow. Changing a process to accommodate an exception would be counter-productive. So any exceptions must be handled as a secondary (sub-set) checklist. This makes the process easier to understand, follow and verify.
    Another aspect of having secondary checklists is that their creators can be held accountable for verifying each of the items on this list. Basically, this is a list that is “owned” by the individual in terms of operational accuracy. The best way to ensure that the secondary checklist is highly effective is to allow the operator to create a draft version and then, the manager or the team as a whole, brainstorms over and reviews this draft and collectively finalizes the checklist.
  • Simplify the check item: This is common sense. If you have a checklist item that is long and complicated and tries to verify multiple steps, the item becomes difficult to check off. Such complex check items also cause confusion because while one part of it may have been satisfied, the other part may not have. So, each check item must address only ONE process step or result and the item should be brief and precise, without being open to interpretations. This also applies to the usage of language. You have to keep in mind that all users of the checklist may not have the same level of language fluency, so complex or difficult words should be avoided and replaced with simple words and sentences. Again, this goes in line with the objective to make sure that nothing in the checklist is open to interpretation. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity about what a particular word or sentence means.
  • Include the obvious: I have often heard experts say that steps that are “obvious” should be excluded from the checklist. While I understand some of the reasoning behind this point of view, I also believe that the essential purpose of a checklist is to make sure that all steps, including those that could be thought to be obvious, are carried out. Of course, we need to use common sense. For example, “Switch on the computer” need not be part of a checklist that deals with working on a bunch of Excel sheets! However, ensuring that the correct font is being used throughout the document should be part of a checklist that deals with documents that are to be delivered to the client.
    The underlying point here is that while the process may remain unchanged and some aspects may be considered to be “obvious” by skilled and experienced personnel, for new comers to the process, even the so-called “obvious” check items may be extremely useful and enable them to be more productive and accurate in their functions. In my experience, I have often seen that when a new person takes up an otherwise standard process, even though he follows the same checklist, there are critical errors. On further investigation, the cause for this is frequently identified to be the fact that at the time the checklist was created, both the operator and the manager were highly experienced and certain steps that they deemed to be “obvious”, were not mentioned in the checklist because their experience and level of skill would virtually guarantee that the steps were inevitably performed. However, it should be remembered at all times that the basic idea behind creating manuals and checklists is to ensure that skill or experience level related limitations do not adversely impact the process and its end result. As long as the standard process and checklists are followed, the accuracy of the end results should be relatively assured.
  • Clarify the stages: Most processes go through different stages. The checklists must also make it clear which stage of the process the items are dealing with. To achieve this clarity, checklists should be properly categorized using appropriate sections for each stage. An important outcome of this logical categorization is that it makes troubleshooting considerably more efficient. When an error is reported, the reviewer can identify the problem area faster by moving across directly to the appropriate category, instead of having to read through all the items to find out which one is related to the reported error.
  • Highlight items that can potentially have critical impact: Some steps of the process may have the potential to cause critical impact on the results if not performed perfectly. These items must be highlighted to clearly indicate to the operator (and to the person doing a second check) that these steps need to be performed with special care and thoroughness.
  • Printed checklists are better: This may sound old school and environmentally unfriendly, but the fact is that a printed piece of paper with check items physically ticked off with a pen makes a whole lot of sense. I love modern day apps (both desktop and mobile) that provide very powerful checklist features. However, when it comes to critical functions, I strongly believe that printed checklists and physical marking is the way to go. Having a printed list in front of you (pasted on the wall, placed on the desk or whatever makes it impossible for you to miss it!) is highly effective. When we actually read an item on a printed sheet of paper and mark it out with a pen, we consciously register in our brains that we have performed the function and verified it.
    It would be a good idea to add columns for date and time as it would create a record of when the steps were confirmed to have been performed. Moreover, when multiple people are involved in the same process or maybe an alternate person performs a step, it would be very useful to record the name of that person alongside the item. For certain functions, checklists with a column for comments (brief notes) may also help. File these checklists carefully. Such detailed records become valuable evidences during error investigations or process audits.
  • Allow explanations for skipped steps: In certain scenarios, one or more check items may be skipped due to valid reasons. However, if this is not recorded in writing, then there is no record of why the steps were skipped or whether the step was performed but the item wasn’t marked. Was it an operational miss? Did the person just forget to mark the item as checked? The reason for skipping a check item must be written alongside. Again, this information will prove to be invaluable during error investigations and process audits.
  • Put it to the test: No checklist is perfect, specially in its first iteration. SO before you apply it to a mission critical process, put the checklist to the test by applying it in parallel to your existing process. Even though this may entail some amount of double work, it will prove to be an ideal test of how well the new checklist covers all aspects of the process and actually contributes to preventing potential misses/errors, which is the primary objective of introducing a new checklist.
  • Periodic reviews and revisions: Like most things in this world, operational workflows are also likely to change. It has to be ensured that the process checklist keeps up with these changes and the only way this can happen is if periodic reviews are carried out. Reviews can be carried out at different times. For example, the review must happen when there is a change in the operational workflow. If not, one or more items may be missing from or be in conflict with the actual workflow. Reviews should also be conducted periodically irrespective of whether the workflow has changed to ensure that learnings during a particular time frame during which the checklist was in use are reflected in the check items to further strengthen the effectiveness of the checklist and mitigate errors.
    Over a period of time, some “exceptions” may become part of the “standard” workflow and based on the outcome of the reviews, these items may require to be incorporated into the standard workflow checklist to be followed by everyone.
    NOTE: When the process is new or is in a constant state of evolution, it may be necessary to revise the checklists several times before the process reaches a state of stability. It should be remembered that just as the process dictates the checklists, the operation of the process is also a key element of making checklists more effective.

I hope the above steps help you to come up with better checklists. Of course, there could be many more ideas to add, so do feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions. I’ll be happy to add relevant suggestions to this piece to make it even more comprehensive.

Aniruddha Mallik.

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