In Appreciation of the Humble Checklist

ChecklistThere I was.

Out of town.

In a hotel.

And about to step into the shower.

That’s when I realized there was no soap.

It was the morning of an important meeting. Having stayed up late with an upset stomach, I’d hit the snooze button one or two times too many. There was no time to contact the front desk and wait for someone to bring a bar to the room. So I set aside my frustration and made good use of the shampoo.

Later on, as I reviewed the trip, I couldn’t help but think about the missing soap. It was a small oversight, but obviously a pretty significant one. How could something so critical to a guest’s stay be overlooked?

When you think about it, it’s really not that hard to understand. Today’s businesses have become increasingly complex. There can be hundreds of components to get right in order for things to work out perfectly. And with so many moving parts it’s very easy to miss one or more of the small ones. But it’s typically the smallest service misses that cause the most customer frustration.

So it’s no wonder that occasionally the soap is missing from a hotel room. From time to time a fast-food order is filled incorrectly. Every once in a while you open a box to find a part is missing. As hard as we try, every service provider is destined to miss something eventually.

But what if there was a simple tool you could use to make sure those little things weren’t overlooked? Would you use it?

Airline pilots use it; so do astronauts and quick-service oil change companies. Chances are you have one on your desk or in your computer or on your phone.

I’m speaking of the humble checklist.

When service providers perform the same steps over and over again, you’d think that things would become automatic; that nothing would be missed. But it’s for precisely this reason that small missteps happen. When service steps become routine, they can be taken for granted. And that’s when the details stand the greatest chance of slipping your mind.

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Harvard Medical School tells how implementing a simple pre-surgery checklist reduced complications and deaths by 35 percent. If highly skilled professionals like surgeons and airline pilots rely on checklists to get the little things right, why shouldn’t the rest of us?

The process is simple:

  1. Map out your service delivery process.
  2. Draft a checklist to document each step.
  3. Use the checklist religiously.

Think you don’t need one? Gawande didn’t either. After, all he’s a Harvard-trained surgeon. But he wrote the book and felt compelled to practice what he preached. He says not a single week has passed at the hospital that his checklist hasn’t caught something.

What could a checklist help you catch?

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