checklists

Checklists delegate a process, not a task

One of the things that tends to plague solo business owners and managers in smaller companies is delegating complex tasks as the company grows. In “E-Myth” fashion, the owner and technician (whatever that means in your line of work) is faced with the choice of delegation or overwhelm as their company grows. Sometimes there are skills issues that slow this delegation, but I often find that the complexity of a simple (to the owner) task contributes to the challenge. Consider a task that is taken for granted by someone who has done it for years. Being able to take it for granted depends on experience and the benefit of having the mental version of muscle memory to perform these tasks. The delegating party doesn’t have to think hard to remember the steps, even if the steps are challenging, technical or difficult. Where things get interesting is when you delegate a technical task such as diagnosing a SQL problem.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what SQL is – it doesn’t matter. Replace my references to SQL with a relevant and challenging delegation subject. The subject can be any detailed topical area (technical or not) in your business, whether it’s international legal contracts, electronic ignitions or chainsaw chain sharpening. The WHAT doesn’t matter. The process is what we’re getting at.

Checklists build confidence

When I had to turn over some detailed SQL troubleshooting to folks who weren’t super experienced at SQL diagnosis, the area that tended to stop them wasn’t the individual tasks performed during diagnosis. The problem was determining (or knowing) which step to perform first… and why. This created a mental roadblock at first, even though these folks could perform each of the steps that I would perform while diagnosing a SQL problem. Their biggest challenge was not performing the troubleshooting tasks, it was knowing which tasks to do and in what order to perform them.

I solved this challenge (and some similar ones) with simple checklists. The solution is an obvious one to solve the roadblock that held up productive delegation of this work. Once I provided a checklist with some description of why I perform the steps at the time I perform them, things changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting questions about which step to try first, or “What should I try next?”. The checklists were taking the one remaining confusing thing off the table: What to do, when to do it and why to do it at that moment.

When you talk to someone who is experienced in diagnosing problems or performing similar tasks like this – they have an experience-based, innate sense of what to try first, next and next. While some of it is Occam’s razor, a good bit of what to do when comes from having been there before. The checklists helped fill a good bit of that experience gap simply by giving folks a sequence to follow even though it was simply sequencing tasks they already knew how to perform. Eventually, their own experience fills in the gaps and they start adding their own checklist steps and notes for why that step is next.

One of the things I noticed when providing a checklist is that the skills improved quickly once they had the list to follow. Rather than facing the blank page of “what do I do first” and the mental overhead that creates, these folks were using the checklist to help them learn the progression of steps. This eliminates the overhead and provides the mental headroom to improve their SQL skills while the checklist provides a framework or a process to work from.

Checklists – Not solely for the owner

The benefits of delegation checklists aren’t limited to owner / manager delegation. The often-missing (or incomplete) but sorely needed process documentation across the entire business is tough to get rolling. Rather than looking at it like the great American novel, start with what helps right now. Who has the next vacation? Who was recently out sick? Start with their tasks. Once you get rolling, it’ll be easier to step into the job and identity the types of tasks that demand a checklist. The priority of need for these checklists will start to become more apparent with each vacation, sick day and checklist creation.