Originally published on Inc Magazine’s Process Playbook column by Chris Ronzio
Creating too many checklists can easily burn out your employees, working against your business. Here’s what to do instead.
When you think process, maybe you think “checklist”.
If you create a checklist for everything, then everything will just run perfectly every time. Right?
Not necessarily. There is a danger with managing by checklist.
Checklists, or in this case, step-by-step standard operating procedures, are extremely useful as you scale your business. But, it’s easy to get checklists confused with task templates, like those in your project management system.
In my first business, a video production company, we created a set of tasks for nearly every aspect of a production. We had a pre-production task template, a travel coordination task template, a gear packing task template, an equipment setup task template, and so on.
And, as we booked more and more productions, our project management system became more and more disastrous. At any given time, we had hundreds — maybe even thousands of open tasks.
When you create checklists for everything, and you assign everyone tasks that they have to complete for the things that they naturally know how to do, they can easily develop what I call “checklist fatigue”.
This means that they have tasks assigned to them for future things, for past things, and for things that aren’t even on their radar yet that they don’t need to be focused on.
And then, that overwhelming sense of having too many tasks leads to them just ignoring everything completely, which defeats the whole purpose of why you created the processes in the first place.
Checklists Are for Reference
There is a difference between a checklist that you actively use to perform the work, like a recipe, and a checklist that you review for reference after doing the work.
For me, this distinction made all the difference in creating my newest set of standard operating procedures, and my newest business, Trainual.
In “The Checklist Manifesto,” Atul Gawande shared that people “require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation.” Simply put, he meant that a checklist is a reference guide. It is a set of standard steps that applies to the most likely scenario, but not something your team should follow explicitly without reason.
In my business, I started to see task templates as micro-management. In many cases, tasks from the template didn’t apply to a particular event, so we ended up having to prune the list each time we duplicated it.
Assigning dozens of repeat tasks for quite regular functions in the business actually made my employees less efficient.
So instead, we made reference guides.
In our office, we posted the steps for fulfilling a video order at the beginning of the assembly line. In our equipment cases, we included laminated checklists for videographers to review as they set up for a production. In our ticketing system, we documented common customer service responses.
We embraced instructions, but we stopped assigning them.
Training Sets You Free
Have you ever hired a new employee and found yourself constantly delegating tasks, then struggling to come up with new things for them to do? It can take almost as much time to hand off certain tasks as it can to do them yourself.
Instead of managing through tasks, manage with proper training.
If you show someone exactly how to do something, and you are confident that they know how to do it, then you can stop assigning tasks and rely on them to do the job at hand. Let them create their own tasks.
When someone is fully trained, they don’t need a checklist to tell them what to do.
As long as your processes are fully documented, easily accessible, and available for reference when needed, you can stop duplicating those task lists, stop overwhelming your team, and trust them to get the work done right.
Just keep your checklists in check.