Everybody knows that we should be “systemising” our business. There is a long and proud tradition of best-selling business books explaining the payoff from a properly systemised organisation- think The E Myth.

Starting the process of getting your business systems under control can seem overwhelming, and resources to find out exactly how to go about it isn’t always so readily accessible.

Like any task that seems difficult, it’s best to start with the simple, basic building blocks.

In this post, we’ll look at the simplest building block of your business system – The Checklist.

Rudimentary Systems

The truth is that you already HAVE systems in your business – but they may be quite rudimentary. For example, presumably things get done the same way (well – sort of) most of the time – or you wouldn’t have any customers at all! Somehow, the message gets through to your team on how things get done (mostly by word-of-mouth.)

So you see, there is a ‘system’, but it’s undocumented. And the guru of systems thinking, Michael Gerber, in his book The E-Myth Revisited, tells us that “If it’s not in writing, it’s not a system”, so at this stage we will say that you have an ‘undocumented process’.

The Problem With Undocumented Processes

The problem with undocumented processes is that our tasks, simple or complex, just keep getting out of control. Every person will put their own “twist” on the way they perform a task. Or they turn to cutting corners and shortcuts – leading to backlogs, work errors, missed deadlines and more headaches. It’s no secret that every person has the potential to understand a verbal instruction in a different way – introducing even more potential variability into the way a task is performed.

Every time a new employee starts, or conditions change, the ‘undocumented process’ usually changes as well.  The business owner finds themselves repeating instructions over, and over, and over, and wondering why employees just can’t do it right.

They can try more training, but work errors seem all but unavoidable.

We see this so often – the increasingly frustrated business owner, who is at the point of just giving up.  That one simple question keeps bothering them – how can a single employee or a team of employees just keep doing the tasks correctly?

Enter the humble Checklist

In his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Dr. Atul Gawande researches an age-old technique for minimising error and maximising consistency, with a straightforward and uncomplicated tool.

Strangely though, it is dreaded by many – the humble Checklist.

Going Back to the Basics

Apart from being a simple but powerful tool, creating Checklists is also the best place to start on your journey to getting your business systemised.

Gawande, who is a surgeon himself, spent five years analysing human errors and complicated processes in high-octane work environments. His conclusion is both astonishing and simple:

Ordinary checklists produce impressive results.

So how come we don’t use them more?  Why do some people hate and resist using them?

The Checklist – Your Personal Team of Experts

Sceptics tell us that Checklists are inflexible and rigid – that they delay action, distract attention and prevent the use of reasoning and common sense – especially in high-pressure, time-critical circumstances.

Many people consider creating a checklist for a task that has been done a thousand times to be a pointless and highly impractical waste of time. The sub-text here is that they see checklists as belittling, and inhibiting their skills, knowledge, job tenure, and expertise.

In short, they see completing checklists as being beneath them.

However, Gwande compares the Checklist to a team of Experts. The Checklist is the organised and written-down know-how of experts on that task.

So, having a checklist is akin to having your own personal team of experts at your back. Who wouldn’t want that?

Human Errors: Up-close and Personal

Gawande investigates employee errors committed in a whole range of  industries, and comes to the conclusion that they are caused by two major factors:

  • Errors of Ignorance – Errors made due to lack of know-how
  • Errors of Ineptitude – Errors made due to improper use of know-how

… and most are Errors of Ineptitude

Gawande’s research tells us that the main cause of employee errors in our modern world is ineptitude. He uses a series of case studies – ranging from medicine to construction – where the repetitive tasks of professionals are highly complicated. Think surgery – it’s incredibly complicated, but many of the tasks are repetitive – and you really, really don’t want the surgeon to forget something.

In these circumstances, mistakes became all but impossible to avoid – it becomes easy for even a skilled and trained employee to skip or miss a step.

Some people may blame the errors on stress and pressure, but Gawande comes away with a simple conclusion:

Everybody needs Checklists

Errors of Ignorance

Just having a Checklist is not sufficient however.

Checklists, like all procedures, should be peer-reviewed before being put into action. What seems obvious to one person will not be obvious to another – and a different Checklist will result. This is particularly so if the person writing the Checklist has been performing that task for a long time – the “but everyone knows that!” syndrome.

There is a balance between having too much and too little, and the best way to find the balance is through testing.

Pride and Prejudice: Errors of Arrogance?

So why do people – from the lowly to the highly skilled – still resist using Checklists?

Gawande asked hospital staff why they resisted, even after they had been shown the benefits.  Answers included “…it was not easy to use…. it took too long… had not improved the safety of care.”

But when the same staff were asked one additional question “Would you want the checklist to be used if you were having an operation?” – a full 93% said yes!

Personally, I’m very glad that the pilots have a comprehensive Checklist to work through before we take off. My mum, years ago, was a passenger in a private plane where the pilot didn’t do this, and the shackle on the front wheel that was used to tow the plane out from the hangar was not removed. The propeller hit the shackle on take-off. Fortunately, the pilot was able to get the plane back on the ground safely, and my mum was safe.

Over-confidence in our skills, and over-familiarity with work procedures usually breeds disrespect for those same procedures. We think that shortcuts and cutting corners on jobs saves time and avoids tedious repetition. But, in the long run, these cost us more work hours, energy and errors – not to mention cold, hard cash.  In the case of pilots and surgeons – it’s lives at stake.

We need to cast our intellectual arrogance aside, and accept that the humble Checklist is an indispensable tool in our increasingly complex work environment.

Restricting our freedom?

Whether we like to admit it or not, checklists give us that feeling of by-the-book, rigid adherence to step-by step procedures – that we won’t have any elbow room for spontaneous, creative, actions and reactions. Don’t CEO’s just conceive key plans by using their infallible intuition and gut instinct?

Checklists do not want to turn your intuitions and instincts off. In fact, they do just the opposite. By taking care of the repetitive tasks in an automated, disciplined and accountable way, our minds are freed to work on the hard stuff – using our intuitions and instincts.

The perfect Checklist?

There is no fool-proof way to design effective Checklists, or method to keep them updated. Businesses differ, and so do the tools and devices they employ.

However, there are some sound principles that you should adhere to when preparing Checklists for your business.

  • It has a clear purpose, and the purpose is stated. What is this Checklist for? What problem is it preventing?
  • It is short. Once you’ve gone over one page – ask yourself if it should be split into two or more lists, or has it got redundant items?
  • It uses simple language and fonts. There’s no place for flowery sentences or fancy fonts here.
  • It covers a task that is important. It might be a repetitive task that has been done a thousand times, but if it’s not done properly or completely, there are financial or other consequences.
  • It requires the user to physically check a box, or write something. The physical act of writing or checking a box helps you to stay ‘on-task’. (Believe me – there’s a whole body of research around this).
  • It is formatted logically. The user doesn’t have to jump from the top to the bottom and back again while completing the list.
  • It has been “stress-tested” or peer-reviewed by actual users, and altered to reflect their input.

Start at the very beginning

When starting the journey to get a business systemised and documented, preparing a series of Checklists is almost always the best place to start. Some of the Checklists we use in our business are for end of week, end of month and end of quarter tasks.  By using these Checklists, we can be sure that the administration and finance functions are working as they should – getting invoices out and getting money in – without error and without delay.

What tasks do you have in your business that are important, but are done repeatedly? Start documenting them, and you’ll find that you are already on the path to getting your business systemised and under control.