Atul Gawande has written a fascinating book called The Checklist Manifesto. The core message in this book is that many professions have advanced to an unprecedented level of sophistication and complexity. The main obstacle in getting optimal results is increasingly the practitioners ability to remember which things to do and when to do them. Atul proposes a simple but effective tool to alleviate this problem: checklists. The idea is of course not new, people have been writing checklists for ages. What makes the book interesting is Atul’s journey through a number of professions in search of insights into how to create useful checklists. The difference between a good checklist and a bad one is that a bad one is ignored.
I was reminded of Atul’s book while reading a heated discussion between some people in the Systems thinking and Lean communities. One of the core claims made by these Systems thinkers is that Lean often uses tools that were developed in the specific context of Toyota and mindlessly applies them to the service industry. The Lean practice of standardized work is taken as a prime example of a practice that works in manufacturing but is questionable in the production of services.
If you are not familiar with the idea of standardized work here are a couple of definitions from Lean organizations:
“By documenting the current best practice, standardized work forms the baseline for kaizen or continuous improvement. As the standard is improved, the new standard becomes the baseline for further improvements, and so on. Improving standardized work is a never-ending process.”
“A precise description of each work activity specifying cycle time, the work sequence of specific tasks, and the minimum inventory of parts on hand needed to conduct the activity. “
The key differences
At first glance, checklists and standardized work are very similar. Both describe elements of work to be done and both are usually specialized for each procedure. Appearances deceive though. Once you look deeper some major differences stand out:
- Aiding, not commanding
Standardized work prescribes each step in a procedure and how it should be done. Practitioners must follow these procedures rigorously. A checklist only lists the things you must not forget to do. A checklist will not describe how to do the steps. That is assumed to be known by the practitioner.
- Quality, not quantity
It is very tempting for a manager to use standardized work as a way of making things go faster as if service work is a production line. With checklists the focus is on avoiding errors and omissions.
- Bottom-up instead of Top-down
The prescriptive nature of standardized work invites a command and control management style. Management defines the standard. The people that actually do the work are only allowed to suggest changes. Successful checklists are created and owned by practitioners and are changed when needed.
- Open, not closed to variation
With standardized work the aim is to describe every procedure that is valid. Workers must choose from these procedures and are discouraged from inventing new ones. A checklist supports one or more procedures. If you encounter a new problem, you are free to solve it without the assistance of a checklist.
So, is the conclusion that checklists are better than standardized tasks? No, both are tools and will work in different circumstances. What I have tried to show is that a checklist is much more likely to be a valuable tool in a service organization than the adoption of standardized work.