Checklists are a common tool used by professionals to help manage complex tasks. Surgical staff in operating rooms use checklists to reduce the chance of errors during complex operations. Pilots use them during take-offs, landings and emergencies so that no vital step is missed during these intense activities. In fact, some commentators credit the use of an emergency landing procedures checklist with the successful landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after both engines failed. Why then aren’t checklists more widely used in the complex world of business?
Like flying a plane, running an effective marketing or sales function is a complex, time-sensitive endeavour that can have a critical impact on corporate financial results. At Stratford Managers, we use performance checklists with our clients to help them identify areas for improvement in their business operations. In the marketing department, the checklist covers 17 leadership dimensions within seven major categories of activities: Product, Price, Promotion, Place (familiar so far?), Planning, Process and People. On the Sales side there are four major categories with a total of 12 leadership dimensions. Each category contains several areas that we ask our clients to consider when assessing their performance.
It is a highly useful exercise, especially for senior executives like CEOs who may not be expert in a specific field like marketing or sales. The value isn’t just in the assessment of performance in each dimension; it is also in the demonstration of the complexity and inter-relatedness of the various areas of activity. A good checklist encourages understanding and cooperation between the various functions in an organization.
We see many reactions to the idea of using a checklist as a diagnostic tool. For some, it takes the magic out of the function by breaking it down into discrete elements. For others, it is embarrassing or threatening to have their area of responsibility dissected and evaluated in detail. But once managers realize that a checklist is simply a tool to assist them in understanding a complex business function so they can improve performance, their enthusiasm grows.
Rather than flying by the seat of their pants, the best pilots get that way precisely because they use checklists to ensure top performance every time they enter the flight deck.