The Humble Checklist
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 10, 2010
Is there anything more mundane than the humble checklist? My mother used them for grocery shopping, and she’d give me one when she sent me to the store so I wouldn’t forget anything.
As I got older, I used them when the consequences of forgetting something were more than I wanted to bear…such as the mosquito repellent, warm clothes or toilet paper on a camping trip (guilty on all counts). The specter of complexity also reared up, and the checklist helped manage it. After ruining a few model cars and airplanes, I learned to follow directions, which are really a checklist for assembly (“Now set aside the fuselage to dry before attaching the wings”).
But then I went to college, became an engineer, and started designing and building things. At first, my mantra was “Real men don’t plan.” Plus, I was a highly qualified, well-trained guy—maybe even an expert in some circles. Of course, experience proved the best teacher, so I learned about project planning and even adopted some of its tools and techniques, like Microsoft Project, the critical path, resource scheduling, and leveling … you know the drill.
“But what about the checklist?” you ask.
Let’s review: What do you do when you have a complex project with a plethora of deliverables and the risk/consequences of failure are more than you can bear? Add to the equation a lot of well-qualified people from different departments and cities working on the project who bristle at suggestions on how to do their jobs. You crank up the ol’ project plan, which was exactly where I started. When I wasn’t getting what I wanted or needed, the checklist entered the scene.
One of the things that became clear during the project plan exercise was that the ratio of tasks to deliverables was very low; there were very few tasks required to produce most deliverables. Also, many of these deliverables were components of the final assembly (a “fuselage”)—in this case, a new product launch supported by enhanced systems that included websites, IVR, an EDI clearinghouse and new business processes with some outsourced operations.
So the project plan was set aside and the components listed in a spreadsheet. These became separate deliverables in a checklist form that could be assigned to one or, at most, two people. Deliverable components were sorted by functional area; working with each functional area, dates were added, sorted chronologically and edited. This produced a solid checklist for each functional area.
The eight team leaders then met as a group to review and critique each checklist. The result was an integrated view of the project but with specific deliverables, dates and the responsible party identified who could work with little coordination required to deliver the component.
The team leaders met with management for 30 minutes every week to review exceptions to the lists. Meetings have lasted as little as eight minutes (when was the last time you held a project review to eight minutes?). The project manager visited with each of the eight team leaders before the meeting to update the checklists in a PowerPoint deck. The deck consisted of four pages of checklists with issues and risks on each one. During user acceptance testing, one more page was added—acceptance criteria. You guessed it: a checklist with 50 items for “go live”—well thought-out, granular, and binary. It passes or doesn’t.
Before “go live,” the component structure was given an operational readiness review in a conference room pilot forum. These consist of checklists of operational scenarios going in and corrections or enhancements coming out.
Success! “Check the box” became the informal team motto.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my colleague Merit Smith for some of the inspiration for the use of checklists. Merit suggested books by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer. Dr. Gawande cited the use of checklists in ER applications by doctors and other health care professionals and in aviation by pilots and others in flight operations. It’s not that these folks aren’t highly trained and competent—they are, but even the pros forget things or miss steps, and in medicine and aviation, the result can be catastrophic. Plus, checklists build effective teamwork in the cockpit and the ER from the get-go. Patient survival rates have risen and airline safety is excellent!
Complexity, timeliness, effective teamwork early on, risk mitigation, cost management and delivery—all aided by the humble checklist. It works for grocery shopping and camping trips, too.
Craig Loughrige is a senior consultant for The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.
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