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Lean and the Magic of Checklists

When we start talking to organisations about the use of checklists in their operations to ensure nothing gets missed and what needs to get check or inspected gets, well, checked and inspected we get a lot of push back. It's accepted that checklists are prevalent in HR for things like inductions, health and safety programs have no end of checklists but not for the operations teams.

We hear things like "We hire smart people not kids" ,"We are professionals" , "We don't have time to write all these checklists", or my very favourite "our people have years of experience, checklists will be insulting to them". Quite possibly you are reading this and thinking yep I agree, there is no way I'd be happy using a checklist let me ask you a couple of things. 

Ever Flown in a Plane or had an Operation?

As you settle into your seat and mentally try and estimate the leg room you don't have, the pilot and co-pilot aren't up at the front of the plane playing Tetris or cards passing the time until you are all ready, they are working through the preflight checklists that they have and there is a number of them: Preflight, Pushback and Engine Start, After Engine Start, Taxi, Before Takeoff, After Takeoff, Climb, Descent, Approach, Before Landing, After Landing and Shutdown for example and these are considered "normal operation' checklists so they are for what these folks are doing multiple times every day, so you would think they would be good at it, but I bet you are happy that they are working through the checklist and not playing cards to ensure your safety. Then they have 'Non-Standard' checklists these are for when events are nonstandard i.e. something has gone wrong, a warning light has come on or landing gear doesn't descend. These non-standard checklists, which we hope are used infrequently, ensure that they walk through the right steps and cover all bases so when the pressure is on, they don't miss anything.

The introduction of checklists into the medical world through things like Surgical Safety Checklists or Surgical Patient Safety System lists have saved countless lives by ensuring that the teamwork through a number of steps to ensure that things don't get left where they shouldn't and force you to reopen the patient to retrieve that swab, things as simple as you actually have the right patient and you know what you are doing to the patient are included as well. It's estimated that surgical complications represent somewhere between 3 & 17% in terms of morbidity rates, (in pre-op, the operation itself and post-op care) by implementing checklists this reduced almost immediately by a minimum of 50%, sometimes as much as 90%.

We used them all the time in Electronics, wire & cable manufacturing, IT is using them for a range of area's from design to implementation.

So, if these incredibly well trained, professional people who are constantly doing the jobs they do are using lists then why not you?

The Car Assembly Plant

It's not going to surprise that Toyota uses checklists, for pretty much everything they do there is a checklist, Ford uses them as well, in fact, most of the leading automotive manufacturers do in some form or another. Toyota has checklists in both manufacturing operations and its design/product development that are used daily to ensure that things don't get skipped or not considered. The checklist ensures that nothing is missed in manufacturing that the inspections that need to take place do take place before moving the part to the next operation, therefore, ensuring they only pass over good product. They are used in the design and product development side of things to ensure that the design meets the required specification, that the tolerance stack-ups are right, the materials used are right and don't result in an annoying squeak.

Certainly, within Toyota training of the workforce is paramount so you could certainly argue that their people are smart, well-trained professionals, but the thought of doing work without a checklist isn't something they would be happy about.

Too Busy for Checklists?

Organisations tell us they are too busy to make a checklist, they need to fix their problems now. Well, that is obviously a problem, sacrificing tomorrow to put out today's fire, it's not really putting out the fire, you are just reducing the heat, it'll come back tomorrow since you are just doing the same thing.

It doesn't take long to build a checklist, you will never capture everything you need, perfection is impossible to achieve but you can keep talking a step towards it. What's great is that your team doing the work can build the checklist for you and by them working together not only will it be a fairly comprehensive list it'll also support cooperation in your team. Will you capture everything? no, that's why we have a continuous improvement culture to identify what isn't working and then put in a countermeasure to fix it which may well include updating a checklist to ensure it isn't missed next time.

What if, by implementing your checklist you reduced your rework by 50%, what would that mean to you in terms of both available time and cost? Obviously, both are reduced but what also happens in that throughput increases, fewer things get held up in your repair loop, fewer things may be scraped off, more sales result and profits go up since you didn't employ anyone extra to achieve this new output level. Surely that would more than offset any slight delay while making a checklist to capture any errors.

What would it mean for your culture? Well, it certainly sends a signal that these elements are important, but more importantly perhaps because the checklist is a communal document rather than something that gets held in a personal notebook it builds on the shared knowledge of the entire team to help drive improvement. The Checklist may set the standard that everyone works to so you get consistency but it's only the standard based on what we know now, tomorrow we may learn something new so the checklist is updated and so everyone is updated and the level of improvement ripples through the team, this is really the basis of a truly shared knowledge approach.

The Speed of Feedback

The faster you can give feedback to someone that a correction or improvement can be made the better right? Guess what a checklist does? it gives immediate self-feedback that something isn't quite right, it forces a few minutes of stepping back and critically assessing what you have done Vs what you should have done, and the results can be really powerful.


Checklists are used the world over in critical and non-critical environments to ensure things don't get missed and that it's done to the best possible standard. Using checklists within your operational environment especially in an engineering set up and you instantly give yourself a real opportunity to quickly grow the shared knowledge but also to prevent poor quality from progressing to the next stage while identifying training opportunities at the same time. Getting your teams to build their own shared list is a great way to increase that shared knowledge and to drive continuous improvement which ultimately means you deliver more to your customers and your bottom line.

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Tuesday, 17 September 2019

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