Check. Check. Stop! Managing the Process Critically

Dr House – By El Moreno
Not long ago, a friend of mine turned me on to an interesting book entitled The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande.

Although Dr. Gawande hails from the medical field, I found his book interesting because he explores, in great detail, a topic that spans almost every aspect of our lives: how to get things done.  But rather than focus exclusively on the medical profession, Gawande explores the tools that other professions use to manage complexity. He examines a wide range of specialties, including architects, pilots and chefs, to learn their techniques.

What he finds is that, across the board, these industries rely heavily on checklists to succeed, even when the task at hand seems too complex for a simple recipe.  He examines how the checklist can be implemented in operating rooms to eliminate human errors, reduce infections and ultimately save lives.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  You can read Malcolm Gladwell’s review of the book over at Amazon.

One of Gawande’s most fascinating anecdotes is the visceral rejection of checklists by surgeons.   Over and over again, doctors reject the idea of a checklist because they feel it is beneath them.  After all, being a surgeon is something that requires years of educational study, research and intense on the job training.  We trust them to make life or death calls, to essentially improvise based on years of expertise.  Surely the idea that they would rely on a set of check boxes, to heal “by the book,” seems almost insulting.

But as I began to think about it, I realized that this issue is not unique to doctors.  Most professionals of any kind interpret the use of a checklist as insulting, as if their use somehow impugns the professionalism of the user.  Perhaps, they too believe that years of study and practical application negates the need for a sheet of paper outlining the steps necessary to complete their jobs.

And yet, over and over again, Gawande offers evidence that using checklists can improve the performance of even the most expert practitioner, even in complex situations.  By the end of the book, he has even successfully implemented checklisting in the operating room. The list allowed surgical teams to catch seemingly small issues that were instrumental in assuring patient safety.

And though the naysayers and reluctant adherents still groan at the mention of a checklist, in the end Gawande shows them to be hypocrites.  Even among doctors who frowned upon the use of a checklist in their operating room, over 90% wanted it to be used if they were the ones undergoing a procedure.

But what does this have to do with digital marketing?

In our office we follow a systematic process to manage our production.  We call it the “Best Case Scenario.”  It is an eight-step process guide that outlines steps to take from the introduction to a client through development and the ultimate launch of a project.  Within each macro-step of the process, there are several more micro-processes required; each of those with their own set of micro tasks.  And yet, the “Best Case Scenario” is not truly a checklist.  At best, it is a “Table of Contents” for the production process.  Yes it allows us to track the lifecycle of a project to completion, but it hardly offers any kind of step-by-step guidance for our team.

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Are Checklists Feasible?

As I read the book, I kept asking myself, would it be possible to make a checklist for our agency?    Could I create a comprehensive list of every aspect of a project to be used by project managers, designers, developers and strategists?  The checklist would surely keep everyone on the same page, give us an objective path to follow and ensure that no part of the project was overlooked.

It seemed smart in theory, but was it realistic?

Checklists? Pashaw!

Right away I ran into trouble.  In order to create a checklist so comprehensive to take every part of a project into consideration, it would take an enormous investment of time, energy and resources.  We would spend more time making the checklist than we would actually spend building the project. And, if at any time during the project adjustments need to be made because of technology limitations, changes from the client or usability issues, a new set of checklists would have to be created.  And what about the innovation factor?

Each time we engage a client, we strive to do something that hasn’t been done before. How is it possible to create a checklist detailing the steps of something that isn’t fully known? The short answer is, we can’t.  But we don’t have to.

Getting Critical.

For problems that resist a simple solution, that is, problems that maintain a degree of unpredictability, a different approach is necessary.  Gawande wrestles with the same problem in medicine – there are no rote solutions to surgery.  However, at the core of Gawande’s findings is that the simple task of getting people to operate as a communicative team forced better outcomes. And checklists can be an effective means of forcing communication.

To that end, we ultimately identified a series of “critical steps” and “communication check-ins” that could be applied across all project/engagement types.  By defining and monitoring these fewer but ultimately more important steps in any process, the management team can create a much smoother workflow and a better functioning team. Here’s how we break it down:

  • Critical Steps: A critical step any point in the process where specific requirements must be met before the project can continue forward. The goal is to keep the number of critical steps in the process are to a minimum.   They should not be taken lightly.  If you can determine repeat deficiencies in your process such as not receiving assets, approvals or payments, you may want to implement critical steps to decrease unnecessary work. Identification of areas in need of a critical step should be performed by your management group based on knowledge of past performances.
  • Communication Check-Ins: Communication check-ins are fail-safes.  They are points in the process where the team is forced to stop and determine the best way to move forward. When correctly planned, they force various team members to talk at regular intervals to identify future issues and solve current problems.  This means that usability, metrics or QA concerns don’t need to wait until the project is about to come due before raising an issue.

Is your process helping or hindering?

The idea of creating and following checklists is not foreign to most of us.  But over time, we have all become very seasoned in what we do. The skills required to do our jobs have become almost second nature. The more experienced we become, the more high-level our thinking becomes.  In this elevation of our thinking, we can begin to lose focus on the details and begin to take them for granted.  It is in these moments that mistakes happen.

Identifying the critical steps of our process benefits everyone involved in two distinct ways.  First, it allows management to focus on the macro level, leaving control of the finer details to the people who understand them most.  Second, it allows for more flexibility and ingenuity throughout the process. Having a checklist allows individuals to work within a set of parameters but does not tie their hands to follow those steps explicitly.  Furthermore, by encouraging better communication among the team, they encourage far more innovative thinking throughout.

I invite you to check out the book and ask yourself if your process is helping or killing your team’s innovation.

Image Credit: El Moreno