Checklists, Continuous Improvement and M&M’s

Author: Jason Quick

If you’ve read the powerfully written book “The Checklist Manifesto”, by Atul Gawande, you’d recall the excerpt regarding the music band Van Halen, and their quirky obsession ensuring that all bowls of M&M’s provided for the band had to be completely void of brown M&M’s. On one occasion they actually followed through, cancelling a show when they discovered brown M&M’s in the bowl located in their dressing room. 

While this sounded like a typical case of ridiculous-celebrity-over-entitlement, it was however, as Atul Gawande wrote, “an ingenious ruse”. You see, their requirement, Article 126, AKA the ‘no-brown M&M’s’ clause, was always buried deep within their stipulated contractual requirements. Why? Well, the band and their management knew that, whenever they found brown M&M’s in their bowl despite specifically requesting in the contract there were to be none at all, they could predict with relative confidence that a technical error would also exist, somewhere else within the larger, concert stage set-up.

To put it another way, this ruse was in actual fact part of a well-crafted, whole-systems quality assurance checklist.

When built and used appropriately, checklists have the power to reduce complex systems to simplicity, primarily for the purpose of performing specific tasks, including auditing.

Simple, steadfast and organised. Checklists are simple to use. They offer the opportunity to remain organised, reminding us and ensuring that nothing is skipped, or left out.      

Consistency and standardisation. Whether the audit is conducted by one person or multiple people or teams, checklists provide the framework for a consistent and standardised approach to the audit, each and every time.

Scaffold for continuous improvement. The standardised audit checklist becomes the base-requirement, allowing identified gaps to be added as corrective actions, based on findings. This supports the notion that the end-game is about identifying issues with process, not people.

Remember though, the checklist is not a panacea. It belongs to a larger system of quality processes, which, when working in sync and synergistically, becomes a powerful tool for growth and continuous improvement. There are, however, many pitfalls to the checklisted approach, if not constructed or used appropriately. 

‘Death by checklist’. Let’s face it, checklists can simply be boring. A well-crafted checklist has the power to motivate, a poorly executed checklist will bore, and actually prove counterproductive.

Process integrity. Cheating the checklist. Without evidence or robust process, the checklist can be ‘beaten’, leading to false positives and inaccurate findings for the sake of ‘looking good’ – this is very dangerous. Having said that, a robust checklist can also expose checklist cheating, and provide the necessary evidence to improve systems and processes.

The Happy Sheet. If the questions are superficial or too simplistic, or perhaps ordered incorrectly, the audit checklist can give a false sense of compliance, when really, issues still exist at a much deeper level. Plus, if the issue is compounded by a poorly ordered checklist, it can result in organisations modifying checklists to suit process, simply to keep others ‘happy’.

What’s the solution? It’s certainly bigger than this word count of this article. The purpose of this concise article is to stimulate thinking about your audit checklists. Nonetheless, to start with, ‘check’ the following…

Dress for the occasion. Use multiple checklists, ensuring they are contextual and specific. That way they will serve to identify issues within existing processes and systems, and with relevance. You may also wish to cycle through a suite of checklists, reducing boredom and complacency.

Checklist the checklist. A good checklist should also meet the criteria of a higher-order checklist, aligned to standards, legislation, procedures, safety and consumer expectations, for example.

Freedom of speech. Avoid the ‘tick and flick’. Allow the user to skip questions, add comments and justify outcomes and findings… we all know that things aren’t always ‘black and white’. Equally important however, is the need to support findings with evidence.

There is a plethora of information out there covering ‘checklisting’ methodology. Nowadays, a great software system will capture these principles, packaging them into a system that promotes creative license, from bespoke question sets through to dynamic continuous improvement corrective action outcomes and accountability. Remember that your checklist review regime is an iterative process, changing from moment to moment, ensuring continuous improvement that is aligned with your operational and customer needs.