A Simple Checklist (But No Simpler)

Albert Einstein believed that supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible.

He said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Here are some very basic (irreducible) questions that can act as powerful checklist to assess your processes.

– Why are we doing what we are doing?

– What all we do?

– How are those linked together?

– How is it done?

– What are the dependencies?

– Who is the customer? What does customer expect?

– What are the top 3 areas where small change can lead to a big difference?

– What all is redundant?

– What can be eliminated to reduce waste (of effort/time/energy/money)?

– What can be simplified?

On a second thought, you can also apply these questions to your own set of working patterns/personal initiatives/career. It’s not just organizations that have processes. We also have our personal processes (ways of working), and they play a huge role in what we deliver to the world as individuals.

Quality (and hence excellence) is largely a personal affair!

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Note: I am scheduled to speak at Ahmedabad Management Association on the topic “Personal Mastery: They Key to Deliver Quality”. (Friday, 08-Jul-2011 at 6:30 PM IST at ). It is an evening talk open for all who are interested. Are we meeting? 🙂

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Related Posts:

Lifelong Learning – 20 Lessons

Three Rituals For Constant Alignment and Learning

On Personal Mastery and Commitment to Learning

Lessons in Using Checklists for Managing Processes

Most quality management theories and modern management practices rely heavily on checklists as an important tool to get things right the first time. Checklists are a great aid to our memories, because they document important points that we would have learned by doing things. Another way to define a checklist is that it is a list of possible indicators which helps us identify risks. Some people also prioritize items in their checklists.

Why checklists?

I was thinking about why engineering disciplines focus so heavily on checklists? Here are a few reasons I could think of:

  • Checklist can be a progressive database of your knowledge on building certain type of systems.
  • Checklists are excellent guides for others to perform the same activity in a consistent fashion with little instructions.
  • Checklists help in controlling quality of the products in verification stage.
  • Checklist standardize the operations and serve as great reminder to get the most crucial activities done.
  • Checklists can serve as a training/reference material for new comers.
  • Checklists are a great communication tool.

In essence: "Checklists seem able to defend everyone, even the experienced, against failure in many more tasks than we realized. They provide a kind of cognitive net. They catch mental flaws." says Dr. Atul Gawande, author of the book “The Checklist Manifesto”

The Problem with Checklists

Checklists mean standardization – and often standardization is blamed for killing creativity. People get blinded so much by checklist that they stop innovating, experimenting and learning. In this context, I read a review Dr. Gawande’s book written by Dr. Philip K. Howard at Wall Street Journal. The review says –

The utility of formal protocols, according to organizational experts, varies with the nature of the activity—some activities are highly systemized, like engineering, and others dependent on the judgment and personality of the individual. Spontaneity and imagination are important in many jobs, including teaching and management of all kinds. Dr. Gawande seems to assume that formal checklists will be an unalloyed benefit. But most people can think of only one thing at once: If they’re thinking about a checklist, they may not be focusing on solving the problem at hand. Many tasks require trial and error—not checklists designed to avoid error. "Hell, there ain’t no rules around here," Thomas Edison famously said. "We’re trying to accomplish something."

My Learning?

  • Checklists are indispensible in a business setting, specially when dealing with production systems that demand consistent outcomes.
  • Success of checklist approach depends solely on nature of work. You can have detailed checklists for specific engineering activities (where outcomes solely depend on inputs and process). 
  • From a management and leadership standpoint, broad-level checklists can be helpful. However, the focus still has to be on situational thinking, innovation and assessing the variables in the process of managing/leading people.
  • In any case, the importance of experimenting, making mistakes and innovating cannot be ruled out. Challenge for improvement experts is to implement checklist in a way that it does not limit thinking.
  • Checklists are tools. As with all other “tools”, a lot depends on your understanding as a professional to use these tools optimally and achieve desired results.

(Hat Tip to Michael Wade for pointing me to this book review post at WSJ).