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10 tips to make check lists work for you

March 23, 2009

I love check lists. They are an outstanding tool for prompting memory or offering a brief description of a task or process. They aren’t a substitute for training, but instead recap on existing skills or describe alternative applications of current knowledge. If used correctly, they can enhance the process by increasing the chance of successful completion to a defined standard.

Check lists are a common part of life. Most of us have thrown one together before heading out to do some shopping, going on vacation or getting to those elusive chores that you have been putting off for the last few weeks. They are used extensively in aviation, emergency services (call an ambulance a couple of times and you’ll begin to notice the trends) and the medical profession (Kishore Visvanathan posted recently in his Plain Brown Wrapper blog about the value of check lists before surgery).

So why would we use check lists in our current work practices? Well, check lists ensure that:

  • Nothing gets missed
  • Things are done in the right order
  • Things are done at the right time
  • Everybody does the same things (standards).

In other words, by following a check list, we do all the right things, in the right order at the right time.

So if you have any jobs or tasks that could that meet these requirements a little better, a check list may encourage a standardised approach, all items being covered, in the correct order and when they need to be.

Types of check lists

There are multiple types of check lists that we currently use as memory prompts or procedural enhancers. This can be reduced into four main categories.

The most common is the bullet list, which is a list of actions that can be completed in any order. This could be a shopping list or things you need to do before you leave the house (e.g. Shut windows, turn of iron etc.).

Despite the ‘list’ in the title, they aren’t restricted to this format. For example, this HAZCHEM placard to the right is also a check list. With this guide, the attending fire fighter knows that he needs to use foam, wear breathing apparatus and will need to evacuate surrounding people. He can also identify the type of substance involved (petroleum fuel in this example).

Simple numbered checklist The next is the numbered list which must be followed sequentially, only skipping or returning to steps as described by the list itself. You will see these in any instructions that you use, whether it be for building a plastic model, assembling a piece of furniture from Ikea or cooking spaghetti.

The instructions on this fire extinguisher is an example numbered list.

The third is the diagram. These can be simple, such as an exit sign or more complex like the procedure for exiting an aircraft in an emergency. Similar to both bulleted and numbered lists, they graphically depict the process that they are trying to explain.

On the right is an example of a personal protective equipment check list diagram.

Finally, we have the flow chart. This is a complex variation of one or more of the three check lists described above. Usually graphical in nature, it explains the task or process with diagrammatic flow, decision branching and multiple end points. Simple charts exist and can be used quite quickly, whilst the more complex ones require some familiarity to avoid being cumbersome and slow.

The example of the left shows a simple flow chart.

For these types of tasks (requiring multiple simple actions), the check list is a great tool for reinforcing the valuable content that you so desperately tried to impart during training. Providing you follow a few simple rules, the rest of the team will embrace them with the enthusiasm the you do.

  • Keep it simple: They must be easy to read and easier to follow. Common jargon and well used acronyms are Ok but there is no substitute for plain English
  • Make it all relevant: Only include what is necessary to complete the task, no extraneous information or background knowledge unless it involves altering the usual actions for this problem solution e.g. exceptions to the rules.
  • Make it big, bold and blatant: Make it stand out. No need to reach for glasses or squint to make out the fine print, you want everyone to see every detail. Use colour, images and diagrams to draw attention to critical points.
  • Extend existing knowledge: make it an extension of what they already know and do. This is a guide only, not an instruction manual or training package. They should not be learning anything new when they pick it up, but it should help them do their job by offering that little bit extra.
  • Make it action based: Have it tell you what to do, not just what to think about. Sure it is a memory prompt, but give more than just a hint of what is expected. Use nouns and verbs (e.g. “Windows” could mean a variety of things and may confuse the issue even more, but “Check all windows” is an action to complete). Obviously this isn’t always necessary (e.g. grocery lists – the action word can be assumed to be – “Buy”).
  • Include a bench mark: This sets the pass mark for completing the step in the check list “Check all windows” implies that the action is completed by looking at them, whether they are open or not is irrelevant, but “Check all windows are locked” actually states what needs to be achieved by the process and provides the remedy should they not be in the correct state (i.e. lock them).
  • Keep it concise: This is not a grammar exercise and brevity is important. Convoluted messages become more difficult to read, are harder to interpret and mess up the format. Once again, this is a prompt, not a script.
  • Clean it up: Processes change with new equipment and finding better, safer ways of doing things. Don’t be tempted to just annotate the changes with a pen stroke here and there and instead, reproduce a whole new a check list with the amendments incorporated so that it is neat and tidy. By all means highlight the changes so that anyone using the check list can immediately see what is different and adjust their actions accordingly.
  • Authorise it: Endorse the check list as an approved procedure to give team members permission to use them. Include them as part of workplace practices by annexing them to the documented procedure. This means that failing to use them breaches the work instructions and leaves the team more open to errors. The tools are there – ensure they get used.
  • Control it: Simply put, number them and ensure that you know where every copy of the check list is promulgated. This way you can destroy out of date material and ensure that when a change occurs, every check list in the area will be amended.

I love check lists. When they work, they work exceedingly well, but when they fail, employees begin to take matters into their own hands and start adjusting the procedures the suit their individual needs within the organisation, not the needs of the organisation itself. Follow these rules and your check lists will be more valuable, more readily accepted and actually give the team member the tools to do the jobs that they already do well, even better.


Download my free e-book THE WORKPLACE TRAINERS TOOL KIT Eight models for effective on the job training.

New e-book coming soon: “THE POST-TRAINING HOT WASH” – Improve your training from within.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2009 9:06 pm

    Great article – I use lists myself (both paper based and electronic) and it is the best way to make sure you have covered everything for that requirement – be it shopping or project related.

  2. April 6, 2009 8:17 am

    Thanks Sammie,

    I couldn’t agree more. I find it amusing when I visit a workplace that doesn’t formally promote check lists and see them strung up all over the place, usually handwritten and faded with time.

    I think it’s our way of telling ourselves that we are organised.

  3. May 6, 2009 9:46 pm

    Great article – I am always in a mess with everything I have to do. Lists would be a best way to get me more organised.

  4. May 8, 2009 6:07 am

    I have just recently set up my website and found lists invaluable to check all things were completed prior to going live – and I use lists ongoing for all regular and project related tasks.

  5. July 7, 2009 11:45 am

    I love checklist and use them in personal and business life, once you perfect checklist to a specific task it becomes invaluable. I’ve created for example a short & sweet prep for the morning list that I go over the night before, preparing clothes/accessories, work bag, etc. I don’t complicate the list & after I re-vised the checklist I print it on an index card. The night before I simply take out my checklist down to setting the alarm clock and I know that my morning and day will go smoothly. It allows one less thing to remember, simplifying life. Isn’t that what we all want!

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