Checklists - Building Teams in Complex Environments

Mar 25 09:02 2010 James D. Murphy Print This Article

Regardless of the industry in which you work, checklists save lives, money, and time. Despite having numbers of technological tools at our disposal, humans are still prone to needless error. These situations - whether simple or complex - can be avoided with a concise, yet comprehensive operations checklist. Not only can it boost performance, but it can also be an effective team building strategy.

Humans excel at solving complex problems. Unfortunately,Guest Posting humans are also prone to making simple errors without a reliable 'road map,' or operations checklist. In the digital age, we are amazed at the abilities of computers to solve problems. But the computer's capacity to solve problems is limited. Computers are fast and accurate. But they are still incapable of solving the tough problems that face us every day in our working lives. We humans need help. We need other humans to help us solve complex problems more effectively. But we also need a means of helping prevent "stupid" errors from occurring as we become pre-occupied with solving complex problems. Checklists can help us do this.

Do you work in a complex environment? Before you answer, do you know what "complex" really means? Chances are, "complex" is more complicated than you think. Unless you are familiar with the theoretical realm of complexity science you may think that "complicated" and "complex" have similar meanings. You may even find some dictionaries that will tell you they are synonyms. But, cutting edge science and organizational research will tell you that there is a great distinction between these terms. Complicated is the opposite of simple. But "complex" indicates a level of difficulty that is bewilderingly greater.

Navigating Complex Situations with an Operations Checklist

Anything that is simple, and even things that are complicated, can, if some great effort is required, be written down or mapped out. Computers excel at these sorts of problems. The organization in which you work, if it is a large one, is very complicated. It may have a complicated organizational structure, voluminous process maps and documents, reams of standards and manuals and so forth. But, these complicated things do not necessarily make your business complex. One of the elements that makes organizational systems complex is the human relationships within it. These relationships depend upon each other and are in a constant state of change. Day-to-day human interaction is vastly complex and exceeds the bounds of computer processing abilities. Furthermore, your organization is connected to a vast external system, the market or global economy, that is vastly more complex. Only humans can assess these complex interactions and solve the problems, however imperfectly, that arise.

For things that are complex, only general statements of relationships can be made. They surpass the bounds of predictability. Complex systems, probably like the business you work in, and certainly the society you live in, possess qualities of diversity, interconnectedness, and interdependence while demonstrating adaptability to changing circumstances. Change, particularly rapid change, is one of the fundamentally identifying attributes of complex systems. Complexity is what makes decision making in today's turbulent markets so difficult and requires a collaborative team building strategy to solve problems.

The world of modern business is one assaulted by complex problems that bombard us with increasing frequency. In such an environment, few, if any, individuals possess the necessary knowledge, expertise, or even genius to handle them alone. Furthermore, even the most competent individuals are only human and prone to errors without an operations checklist in hand. And, as research and mountains of anecdotal evidence have shown, it's often the simplest, most obvious things upon which we err. The human mind is powerful indeed. It excels at analyzing complicated and even complex issues. As we focus on such perplexing problems, often under stress-inducing time constraints, we become overwhelmed and Task Saturated. When this happens, we miss the simpler, more routine steps or tasks. These are the steps and tasks that are easily addressed through checklists.

Lately, no profession has brought so much self-criticism upon these types of simple errors as in medicine. As the renowned surgeon and author Atul Gawande has made clear in his most recent book, The Checklist Manifesto, these failures are often due to failed teambuilding, the foundation of effective communication, and coordination among teams in the operating room. Gawande's research and experimentation through the World Health Organization has resulted in a 36% reduction in post-surgery major complications and a 47% reduction in post-surgery deaths through the introduction of something as simple as an operations checklist.

Using an Operations Checklist to Reduce Errors and Improve Performance

Checklists have become a powerful yet simple tool in combating failure when tackling both complicated and complex problems. Their worth is proven, yet their use in most industries is either inconsistent or non-existent. The aviation industry has been utilizing checklists for over 70 years, while countless other industries have come to recognize their importance and expand their use. The failure to recognize the benefits of checklists comes from the misperception that checklists only address complicated process steps or emergency situations. To see checklists in such a limited light is to miss a larger and perhaps more significant opportunity.

The true power of an operations checklist is that it can empower teams and build greater discipline. Checklists, when properly developed and tested, provide every member of a team the authority to prevent errors. In the medical field, one in which physicians have historically wielded authoritarian and autonomous power over other medical professionals, Atul Gawande demonstrated how an operations checklist provided nurses the power to question physicians and improve the overall functioning of the medical team. This has long been the experience in both military and civilian aviation fields in which checklists have empowered crew members to appropriately question their pilots and prevent injury or disaster. They are able to do this because the operations checklist becomes a procedural tool that connects complex problem solving and team interaction with the fundamental and simple aspects of the activity at hand. Checklists provide a rallying point to the fundamental and simple tasks when our higher-order problem solving abilities distract or overwhelm us.

Checklists do not, and cannot, replace skill and experience. That is not their function. Although simple, an operations checklist aids teams in addressing fundamental team and individual processing errors. It provides us, not only a crutch for our poor memories or absent knowledge, but also a rallying point for collaborative and high-performing teams.

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About Article Author

James D. Murphy
James D. Murphy

As the founder and CEO of Afterburner, Inc., James D. Murphy has a unique, powerful mix of leadership skills in both the military and business worlds. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Murphy joined the U.S. Air Force where he learned to fly the F-15, logging over 1,200 hours as an instructor pilot in the F-15 and accumulating over 3,200 hours of flight time in other high-performance jet aircraft. He has also flown missions to Central America, Asia, Central Europe and the Middle East. As Afterburner's leadership keynote speaker, Murphy has helped top business leaders transform strategy into action by showing that the concepts of the Flawless Execution(SM) model could be applied to business process improvement and engaging the proven model - "Plan. Brief. Execute. Debrief." 

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