Checklists: An Outdated Concept Or An Outdated Process?

Jonathan Stolk

Checklists are used everywhere and for all sorts of purposes. They mitigate the risk of human error by process of checking and rechecking each and every step that is carried out. At some point, it becomes an unconscious action because we crave structure, a sense of completion and assurance of success. You probably have your own preferred checklists at home, like a grocery list or a weekly to-do list. But what’s the origin of this concept?

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It all started on October 30th, 1935, when an airplane crashed in Dayton, Ohio. Boeing was introducing a revolutionary aircraft to the US Military; the Boeing B-17. The airplane took off, traveled several kilometers after which it capsized into flames, killing both Major Ployer P. Hill, US Army Air Corps, and Lieutenant Donald Leander Putt.

Everything was inspected and there was no mechanical problem present. The crash was a result of human error. The gust lock was not released before take-off. Further research was conducted, which showed that even the best pilot wouldn’t be able to remember all the steps by heart.

That’s when the idea of a physical checklist was introduced and rolled out into every process in the aviation industry. Other industries followed shortly after.

From history, we learn that human errors happen and that certain steps are needed in order to avoid these problems. Checklists are now mandatory throughout most industries and for distinctive purposes. This concept facilitates communication between different business departments and allows the organisation to regulate duties that happen on a daily basis. This all argues to the positive side of checklist, so why call it outdated?

We can illustrate this with a very simple example. Let’s take your smartphone, its software is updated several times a year to improve the operating system and fix bugs. Isn’t it weird that we’ve been using the same system for checklists as they did when it originated in 1935? The majority of companies still use paper for their checklists even though time and money can be saved through a fairly simple update.

Updates are the result of wanting to achieve a goal. Cutting cost, increasing profit, improving efficiency could be that goal, to name just a few.

We recently surveyed over 450 Lean Six Sigma specialists to find out how they deal with the humble checklist. Lean Six Sigma aims to improve performance by removing waste and variation. The checklist is a powerful tool for any Lean Six Sigma professional towards achieving this. However, paperwork in itself is wasteful, isn’t it? The top 5 sources of paperwork read as follows:

  1. Quality checks
  2. Inspections
  3. Non-conformity reports
  4. 5S audits
  5. Safety observations

Each of these ‘jobs’ have their own unique purpose but at their core can be stripped down to being a checklist. When asked how these professionals deal with these jobs, Excel was the no. 1 tool. At the same time, manual data entry is their main frustration. It seems the tool and the frustration go hand in hand.

“Manual data entry listed as top frustration among Lean Six Sigma professionals. “

Forbes conducted a survey on a larger scale, interviewing 2000 employees from the US and UK. 80% responded saying they would like more insight into the performance of the business and 50% said their performance would increase if they had that insight. Employees clearly want to be more involved in measuring the organisation’s KPI’s. Forbes added 5 main reasons Excel is bad for business:

  1. A great percentage of the staff doesn’t fully understand all of the hidden tools that Excel has to offer. The only interested staff are the data analysts and hereby excluding the rest of the departments.
  2. Data is presented in big quantities causing confusion between employees and hereby hiding the most important data.
  3. All of the data is visible through spreadsheets and again only the specialist would be able to put this information into a coherent pie chart or any other sort of visualisation.
  4. Losing data in Excel is as easy as pressing the update button. Therefore, limiting the company from spotting trends and comparing data from different time periods.
  5. Excel is not made to be shared, because it’s barely live or in real-time. Documents always run the risk of getting accidentally changed or deleted. It even runs the risk of getting lost in a co-worker’s inbox.

The next vital issue with checklists is the data collection technique. The biggest frustrations of our respondents can be directly linked to paperwork. First of all, paper is another fixed cost on your balance sheet, under office supply. On average, an employee uses 10,000 sheets of paper per year and that’s only one person. Now imagine having to supply a whole organisation.

Moreover, a total of 45% of the daily paper printed out is wasted, so half of the money invested in this supply is drained. Imagine the amount of money that could be saved up if the use of paper would be cut off completely. Paper is just a small portion of this cost, because in order to print you also need ink, not to forget the bulky, and expensive printers.

As a Lean Six Sigma specialist, waste or lack thereof is of extreme importance, but how can an organisation be completely waste-free if a great portion of the data is being collected on one of the biggest sources of waste?

Secondly, time is money and the process of collecting data through the use of paper is costly. Collecting this information takes time and there are many issues that come along with it. Once data is collected it still has to be inserted into a document online in order to properly analyse it. Imagine being able to save all of the time that this process takes and being able to truly focus on the important matters.

Thirdly, one of the biggest principles of Lean Six Sigma is teamwork rather than an individual making the organisation run more efficiently. Change can be adapted easier if the whole organisation is aware of the situation and can work together towards a common goal. Sharing information throughout each and every department can be challenging when it recorded on paper.

“Lean Six Sigma professionals are not satisfied with their current process.”

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To conclude, from a score of 1 being very dissatisfied and 10 being very satisfied with the current process the average among our respondents was a 5. So, there is room for improvement and one of the first steps is realizing that there is a problem with the current process. Checklists are needed because they allow us to conduct research, collect data, and thereby allow us to obtain rich information to analyze. The concept is not outdated, but the process is and therefore not allowing you to unlock the full potential. Checklists are useless if they’re not ultimately helping the organization.

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