The Power Of Checklists

Last week my 5-minute-old daughter, Sophia, reminded me, yet again, of a powerful but often-overlooked business tool: the Checklist.

If you are under 60, there is a good chance your health in the first few minutes of life were quickly but accurately assessed by the Apgar score. The score is a very efficient and quick way to assess the health of a newborn in the first few minutes by looking at the 5 categories in the checklist: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration. Each category is ranked between 0 and 2, resulting in an Apgar score between 0 and 10.

Dr Apgar “invented” this system in 1952 while chatting over coffee with a physician who asked how she would make a systematic assessment of a new born. Before then each physician followed their own hit and miss approach, and the Apgar scoring is credited for an important contribution to reducing infant mortality.

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto provides countless examples about the powers of simple checklists. In brief, if surgeons and pilots count on it, so should your business.

Business Case

We recently implemented highly effective checklists for a restaurant dining floor and kitchen. Thanks to these checklists each staff/manager were in full control of every step in the service from the very moment the client walks in the door, to checking reservations, presenting menus, discussing wine lists, taking orders and all the way to greeting the client good-bye.

This minimized hiccups in the service and misunderstandings between staff to the absolute minimum. It is critical because even “small” delays, like cleaning/preparing an empty table, can leave a very negative impression with the clientele.

Ah, and don’t forget to coordinate with the kitchen checklists to find the exact time of the “chef’s round”, when the chef comes out for a very brief chat with each table. This can do wonders to the dining experience.

More benefits

The checklists also helped all staff in the restaurant to be stress-free and far more confident in each other and in the fact that every single client is attended to as needed. This helped keep a relaxed and welcoming smile on their faces, which was another huge advantage that checklists provided.

My client said “…and what’s amazing is that not only staff, but clients also started to move with the “rhythm”, they seem to be able to sense what’s coming next and this has created a wonderful flow all around…It was also incredibly easy now to train new staff into the system…”

Danger Beware

One danger with checklists is to appear as the only way to do the tasks. You must make it clear to your staff that a checklist is a tool that can be modified, and you must have a structure for this modification. For instance, each checklist must have an owner or “auditor” who not only monitors its execution, but also takes any input from staff/clientele about any short falls (if any) and adjusts it appropriately. This continuous improvement process is extremely important if you want your business to benefit from the huge advantage that checklists offer. Otherwise the staff may just follow blindly; and we have all experienced the frustration, as customers when the situation that does not ‘fit the profile’ and staff cannot cope.

Sophia now is one-week old, and the other simple but important things she is reminding me of are just as priceless.