What would you pay for a tool that could transmit the wisdom of your smartest people out to everyone in your whole organization? One that is able to reduce errors in the most complex activity and achieve consistent results time after time? I’m sure you’d pay a lot, but this tool costs very little and requires almost no training to use.
By now you’re beginning to suspect the tool does not exist or this is some kind of joke. But this tool has accomplished the following things:
In 1935, a new generation of long-range bomber was all but certain to be adopted by the US Army until, in it’s competition flight, the Army’s chief of flight testing crashed it killing himself and another of the five crew members. There was no mechanical failure – the problem was pilot error due to the complexity of the new machine.
The bomber was scrapped in favor of a simpler plane which had much less range and capacity. But a few of the more complex planes were purchased for testing and this tool was adopted. Using this tool, pilots went on to fly this plane a total of 1.8 million miles without a single accident. The Army eventually ordered close to thirteen thousand of these bombers and because of its increased capacity gained a serious air advantage in World War II. The planes were known as the B-17 and nick named The Flying Fortress.
In more recent times, the tool has been applied to the complexity of hospital intensive care units where over half the ICU’s in the country (USA) rely on a super-specialist to oversee the intricacies of care which involve on average 178 separate, individual actions for each patient every day. In Michigan, starting in 2004 this tool was used where many hospitals are short on staff and funds. It saved over 1,500 lives and an estimated 175 million dollars in a year and a half.
What is this tool? A check list. That’s right. A check list. A simple check list. In this great New Yorker article, Atul Gawande points out that check lists have two benefits. I’ll quote him here and provide my emphasis.
First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When youâ€™re worrying about what treatment to give a woman who wonâ€™t stop seizing, itâ€™s hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes. Pronovost was surprised to discover how often even experienced personnel failed to grasp the importance of certain precautions. In a survey of I.C.U. staff taken before introducing the ventilator checklists, he found that half hadnâ€™t realized that there was evidence strongly supporting giving ventilated patients antacid medication. Checklists established a higher standard of baseline performance.
If something so simple can achieve such fantastic results why are they not used more often?
I’ll bet the answer lies in your response when you read what the tool is. Didn’t you think “Well that can’t apply to my business. Most of what I do can’t be reduced to something as one-dimensional as a check list – it’s too complex/unique/has special circumstances?” Didn’t you think that?
So did doctors and test pilots. The truth is most company founders don’t go to work thinking their main job is to develop check lists. No. We think our job is to get real stuff done. Solve problems. Sell product. Collect money. We don’t have time to develop check lists.
But that’s only our job if we don’t want to build a very large company. If we want to scale what we do then we should spend half our time developing check lists, the other half making sure people follow them (read the article for some great insight on that) and the third half handling the stuff that truly is special. It’s my experience that the “third half” is actually less than 15% of what goes on. The rest can be documented and replicated with something as simple as a check list. Or, actually, many check lists.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t feel so good. We don’t feel like heroes walking around with a clipboard ticking off boxes. We feel much better thinking that what we do is special and unique. We like to be heroes.
But you know what? A friend of mine’s house burned down recently. The picture above is of their house. Here’s the video.
Luckily he was awake at 2AM getting ready for a trip so he heard the smoke alarm go off. He rushed upstairs and got his kids and wife out of the house. With literally seconds to spare. One of their three pets died, another escaped in good shape, and the third was resuscitated by the fire fighters with oxygen and is doing fine. The house was destroyed. All their possessions including video tapes of the kids and all his wife’s art work were ruined. The family was checked out at the hospital, but didn’t need to stay. He described it like being sunburned and having smoke in the lungs like a few cigars. Sunburned skin from being so close to a fire in your house! That’s how near they came to disaster. Instead they only lost all their possessions and a pet.
Somewhere between the smoke detector, him rushing upstairs through smoky rooms, and the fire fighters I’m sure there’s a hero or two or three. I’m just as sure they wish they never needed one.
Sometimes our desire to feel like the hero gets in the way of building a company. Because the majority of what we need to accomplish is not heroic. But making sure the right things happen day after day every time anyone in your company does their job or helps a customer; to do that consistently with great results we need a cheap little tool, not a hero.
Change the batteries in your smoke detectors.
Don’t be a hero
Build some checklists
[tags]Checklist, CEO Skills, Entrepreneur, Build a company, small business [/tags]