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Use this time-tested systems thinking tool to fix mistakes

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Use this time-tested systems thinking tool to fix mistakes

Scott Miker

There is a tool that is often used in medical facilities, airplane cockpits, businesses, schools, the military and many other areas.  It helps prevent mistakes and has an incredible ability to make sure that individuals do not forget important, yet routine, aspects of what they are doing.

The tool is so simple that a young child can utilize it.  It is so effective that brain surgeons use it.  It doesn’t require high intelligence or years of life experience.  It doesn’t limit an expert but helps them break free from the mundane and often tedious actions that have to happen over and over again.

This tool can be used to break bad habits and help someone who is not detailed become focused on the details and avoid common mistakes. 

The tool is the simple checklist.  In the book, The Slow Fix by Carl Honore, he emphasizes the value of the checklist. 

He says, “For years pilots have used these to guard against forgetting to flick a vital switch or confirm a crucial reading.  Lawyers use them to avoid missing the tiny, telling details in complex litigation.  Checklists are increasingly common in industries ranging from construction to software engineering, where botching the small stuff can have catastrophic consequences.” 

But for some reason people don’t understand the value in using checklists.  Honore explains, “The trouble is many experts balk at being asked to run through a checklist.  We have already seen how hard it can be to own up to our mistakes and limits.  Turning to a checklist implies that, despite our many years of experience, we might still make an elementary booboo.  Why do I need a checklist to remind me to do stuff I do without even thinking?  Yet that is precisely the problem.  When we switch into autopilot, when we stop thinking, we can miss the small things that make a big difference.”

I utilize checklists all the time at work.  There are some aspects of my job that require both creative thinking and detailed-oriented tasks.  In order to leave as much room in my head for creative aspects, I have created numerous checklists that I can pull out to assure I don’t miss the small stuff.  It has been an incredibly helpful tool that allows me to focus my energy on the higher level, more important aspects of what I do and leave the mundane details to be addressed by the checklist.

I have also used the checklist while managing others but the results are often mixed.  I have found that if others truly appreciate the checklist they will utilize it and help solve any problems they have forgetting important details.  But if they are resistant the checklist becomes a meaningless gesture rather than a tool to avoid mistakes. 

In those situations I have found that their ego is bruised by the thought that they need a checklist to remember something.  They don’t think of a checklist as an important tool that experts use, they think of it as a tool for the novice. 

So in order to get around that, I have found that changing it from a list of things to remind them (which they can just go through without taking seriously) I can develop a short questionnaire for them.  Instead of saying “did you remember to switch the status in the computer when you are done working on that item?” I will ask, “What does the status on the computer read currently?”

Then if they make a mistake and pencil whip the answers, we can go back when a mistake happens and see that they answered it incorrectly.  We can also ask questions that they have to look up, such as “what is the customer’s date of birth” rather than “is the customer over 18?”  This forces them to look for it rather than just say yes. 

The local grocery store has this exact question when buying alcohol in the self-checkout lanes but I have noticed that they usually just put in 01/01/1970 instead of actually typing in the correct birthdate. 

The great thing is that this is easily identified and addressed if necessary.  Mistakes will start to happen and data will show an unusual amount of people with a 01/01/1970 birthdate.  It becomes important that those using the checklist understand that their accuracy is important and they will be accountable for accurate answers. 

So when you think of checklists don’t assume it is just a list of things to remember.  There is a progressive element in the checklist that can be added to until the goal has been met.  If a simple reminder checklist doesn’t work, add in questions that require you to look up the answer.  This will break your concentration enough to hopefully catch small mistakes that so often go unnoticed. 

The checklist is a tool that is very under appreciated.  But with pilots, lawyers, surgeons and many others turning to checklists to help with the mundane details, it is difficult to say it is only for the novice.  Checklists can be used to remember the boring details for you so you can stay focused on the other, more valuable, aspects of what you do.