Creating Checklists


Two summers ago my Scout troop planned a five-day canoe trip through the badlands of the Red Deer River. We prepared for months by planning the route, buying groceries, arranging for transport into and out of the river, and reviewing emergency plans. The day finally came, and we were at the river bank loading the canoes. The kids were excited. Parents’ faces showed their mixed emotions – trepidation about letting their little darlings float off into the wild for a week, and anticipation of having the house to themselves for the first time in thirteen years.

Scouter B. was standing in the back of his truck asking if a tent left there was a spare, or if somebody needed it. I called, he sang, he tap-danced, but nobody seemed to need that tent. NThat evening, when were setting up camp on an island in the middle of the river twenty kilometers downstream, the boys realized they didn’t have a tent. My checklist included a spare tarp and spare rope. While tent that’s made out of canoe paddles and rope doesn’t keep out the mosquitos, It does provide some shelter.

Checklists are very useful, and they don’t have to be complicated. You can adapt them to whatever organizational tools or planner you prefer. I stole this idea from my old army buddy Mike who’s now a rocket scientist, and modified it for my own uses. The best part about this technique is that your checklist will learn.

Imagine you go on that business trip, and while you’re away you realize things would be easier if you’d remembered to bring toothpaste. Now you can update your checklist so that you never forget toothpaste again. Your needs and experience will update the checklist over time, so that it’s always complete, current, hassle-free, and easy to use.

Use this technique for many different kinds of checklists. Any time you have a recurring task you have a candidate for a checklist. Business trip, camping trip,  booking a meeting, preparing a presentation, doing your weekly review, doing an employee review, etc. We’ll use a grocery list as an example.With a traditional hand-written list you go to the store, meet some nice people, pick up some things you forgot to put on the list in the first place, come home and put away all your Vanilla Shreddies. What do you do with your list? Most times we just throw it away and start a fresh list for next week. What we’re losing doing it this way is a history of what we did before.

Instead of throwing out your list, type it out on the computer, print it out, and hang it up in the kitchen where everybody in your apartment/family/commune can see it.

To put an item on the list (like Vanilla Shreddies) give it a single diagonal slash mark. If it’s not already on the list, write it on the bottom and give it a single slash too. On the next trip to the grocery store, as you find the Vanilla Shreddies and put them in your grocery cart, give it a second slash in the opposite direction. Now it has an “X”. Done!

When you get home, add the hand-written items at the bottom of your updated list to your computer version, print it out again, and hang it up in the kitchen for your roommates/family/commune to see and use. Do this a couple of times and you’ll have built a comprehensive list of everything you’d ever want to buy at the grocery store.

Now your list becomes very powerful. As you prepare to go for groceries, scan the list to make sure there’s nothing you need to add or have forgotten to give a slash. You can open the cupboard and check if you need more Vanilla Shreddies, instead of standing in the aisle of the grocery store later wondering if you should buy another box just in case. It will help you remember what to check for, what you might need, and what you forgot last time. You’ll save time & effort putting the list together which further reduces waste and duplication.

Now optimize your checklist by grouping items. In our grocery list example this means grouping items by which aisle they belong in: shredding in the cereal aisle, milk and cheese in the dairy aisle. You spend less time scanning the list to find the items you need from the aisle you’re standing in. You miss fewer items and don’t have to double back to pick up something you missed. Both the making the list and getting the groceries gets faster with fewer errors and omissions.

Using checklists saves times, reduces mistakes, and most importantly gives us a sense of confidence that haven’t forgotten anything. This reduces our stress and lets us perform at a higher level. It’s easier to think clearly when we’re not worrying if we forgot our Vanilla Shreddies. I get a little stabby when I don’t get my Shreddies in the morning, and it makes it difficult to focus on other things.


One response to “Creating Checklists

  1. Pingback: Checklist Manifesto « The Practical Manager

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