The Power of Checklists


We have been trudging through a discussion about how the capability of a boss can be attached to a place on a vertical list of how that person operates within his job function. As we go up and down the list, there is a corresponding operational activity (what that person does) necessarily positioned across from that capability level; it is very difficult for anyone to perform an action that is above his level of capability. The connection between capability and performance can be measured in the real world (sometimes in an unforgiving and cruel manner): Everyone lands somewhere on the capability scale, and each of us must be responsible for dealing with our own “scale score.” The happy news is that we all can learn new skills, develop more effective capabilities, and acquire a higher level of understanding and then move up the scale. Developing a realistic self-score of where we are on the scale can be an effective and realistic beginning point for doing better. The prospect of creating this improvement in our capability is the shining hope (and value) of lifelong personal and professional learning.

So far, we have covered some of the details and dynamics of managing attendance and appearance. Both categories are necessary basic organizational functions (on the bottom of the hierarchy) that create an effective level of everyday response readiness. They are listed as baseline boss activities only because they necessitate a fairly routine level of boss engagement. They could be categories that are directed and led mostly by supervision (as opposed to management/leadership) by a boss who is present and awake. We have tried to create the perspective that when we are on time and in uniform, we have achieved the “ready, get set” part of the response process, but really we haven’t done what it takes to effectively “go,” which requires moving up the hierarchy. This brings us to the next level of boss difficulty that involves managing the maintenance of our readiness resources.

Let me now take a little side road and make an observation about a common comment we hear a lot that relates to our current topic. We frequently hear someone say, “Think outside the box.” It is a statement that urges us to be creative and innovative and to break out of the traditional way we think about the boundaries of how we limit ourselves. Although I am a big fan of a wide range of ideas, approaches, and possibilities, I have lived through a set of experiences (as a boss) where someone prematurely got out of the box before finishing the functions and activities required to effectively complete what was supposed to happen inside the box. I have also observed that a lot of really critical things have an organizational “box” around them and doing what is inside the box creates beginning/middle functions that will lead right to the end. If you skip a step/stage because you got outside the box, you will not get to the end, and sometimes this can lead to a big-time operational flub.

Sadly, a lot of these “box mistakes” involved some safety-related activity where someone got hurt (or worse) because we were in a hurry and did fewer than the number of steps in the standard operating procedure that were in place and designed to protect us. Our procedures are built around necessary activities that become the foundation to complete the entire routine. These procedures are long-standing and are tried and true. It is absolutely necessary to continually attempt to create a better way; but, until you do, keep doing what is in the official routine. When we decide on that better way, we can plug it into the performance model and then all do it the better way.

We then must use those procedures to create the launching pad for being able to invent and add special activities to match the operational and tactical needs of that particular situation. The basics come first. Then, we can use our imagination to get to the finish line. What this means is that we copy the correct address, safely leave the station, have the door all the way up, drive inside the box (absolutely follow driving procedures), stage in a standard spot, and on and on through our regular response/operational procedure-directed routine. Once we do all of that, there is always plenty of decision making and operational action that will require quick, smart, adaptive innovation. The basic action is in the box = core service; innovation is out of the box = added value. Together, they are beautiful.

Another observation about following standard routines is how and when failures occur. Our troops bring an admirable amount of skill, ability, and courage to where they do their work. What they routinely do tactically is not for the faint of heart; they are typically an interesting combination of being bold and creative, and they use that combination to sometimes take chances. Old fogey bosses (like me) are continually harping to our Evel Knievels about the relationship between risk and gain. When we look at the following of a necessary routine, it almost requires the opposite. As an example, if the checklist says to check the fluid level at the beginning of the shift and after use, do exactly that every time (journeymen/women take good care of their tools). Here is where the risk taking comes in: If we fail to do that, it probably will not result in a catastrophic failure at that very moment. The problem is that eventually it will, and we won’t know when. The safety guys use lining up slices of Swiss cheese as the example of how things go wrong. The holes in the cheese are random and irregular, and it is rare to get them to all line up. If you break the rule enough, they will eventually create a nice clear hole (through all the layers). You then will have an accident/incident-now a bad thing happens.

Managing how we do all this routine maintenance stuff is about as dull as physically doing the maintenance stuff. It is not sexy or exciting. In fact, it is an activity that you really want to be dull, where you purposefully eliminate any thrills, such as taking a chance by not doing what is on the checklist (being “bold”) and then wondering which time the Swiss cheese holes will be aligned (remember?). The reason for this checklist approach is that you get to routinely take care of the equipment you use where/when you can control the urgency and take your time, making certain that the tool is ready to use before you need to use it. This is a critical time in the management process because when you use that same “tool,” you don’t have that same luxury of discretionary time. The middle of the thrill show is a bad time to discover that you didn’t fill it up, sharpen it, start it, clean it, check it out, and generally did not take care of it when you should have.

We operate a lot of physical items-tools, equipment, apparatus, and so on. They require an effective level of maintenance that is generally described in the regular and special routines included in the checklists. How we follow these checklists determines consistent operational readiness. If the checklist is not followed, it can lead directly to a breakdown of how that part plays its role in the performance process. For this reason, it is critical that the boss take an active role in managing the maintenance activities. The basic boss function for managing attendance and appearance can be pretty easygoing because, although the functions are critical, they are generally self-managed by the participant; the boss does his part by always showing up on time in a standard state of appearance/readiness. Although our scheduled maintenance is generally done in a regular/routine (dull) way, mostly at the beginning of our shift and after we use whatever it is that requires attention, based on the consequences of noncompliance, the boss must be more involved and active.

Some functions like maintenance lend themselves to using checklists that describe a set of related and necessary steps or activities involved in completing a set of connected tasks that make up a routine. Checklists are effective and straightforward. The lists should be short, simple, and complete. Doing the checklist items routinely helps you to develop a set of organizational, positive habits that structure how you personally perform. A puzzling and current issue (as an example) in our service is our struggle with the response checklist of always putting on our seat belt. This is a very critical function of “personal maintenance.” It is interesting to watch our members when they drive their own vehicles: They consistently and habitually snap their belt and yell at any passengers who don’t. Yet, these very same people will go on duty, get on a fire truck, and not wear their seat belts. Many of us old-schoolers ask the standard question when we hear about checklist violations, “Where is the boss?”

When I was in a position where I routinely reviewed roll calls, I was familiar with our officers and could predict with some accuracy the day-to-day habits of a work group based on the personality of the group’s everyday boss. I did not have any exceptional ability to do that; I just hung around for a long time and actively and regularly engaged those same bosses, so I got to know them very well. When it came to creating a consistent and standard level of readiness, I was highly attracted to a boss who was really smart about doing the work and also really grumpy about getting ready to do the work. I mostly connected with the effective grumps by commending their performance. Basically, I never heard much about the regular routines they managed; those routines were a highly important part of the work checklist of their group. The grumpy bosses never showed up in any corrective paperwork or report of a performance problem. These old-schoolers (regardless of age) are captains and lieutenants who figured out a long time ago that if they took care of the business of their company, everyone else, including their boss, would stay out of their business.

Being effective as a boss requires developing an approach that fits the needs of the particular activity or situation. We use the current negative term “micromanager” to describe a “picky” boss. When it comes to managing checklists, let me declare: I love them. Although I believe that it is dysfunctional for someone in charge to apply an unnecessary or excessive level of supervision, I also believe it is a positive for a boss to pay attention to activities that can negatively affect functions that support our tactical/customer work or that can hurt us if they are not done in an effective way.

Leadership that works is a combination of art and science, and a huge part of that process is the presence and attention of the boss. Our troops develop powerful habits from the way they attend to the routine parts of their job, such as maintenance activities. Effective bosses generally do not have to continually hit their workers over the head to do those critical things-what they must do is be quietly close to where those maintenance activities take place, always interact with their personnel about the current progress and status of the condition of their resources, and routinely commend them for completing the standard routine regularly and well. When there is a need for the boss to become involved to help solve a problem in the regular routine, the troops know that their leader is not at all timid about expressing his concern by getting directly involved in creatively fixing whatever is required to get back on track. If that is classified as micromanagement, then I unhesitatingly support it.

Managing maintenance activities is not glamorous in any way, but because it is so critical to our safety and effectiveness, it moves up a notch on the hierarchy of critical leadership functions. To illustrate how important this is, ask yourself if you want the pilot to complete the standard safety checklist before taking off the next time you are a plane passenger. I strongly suspect that you and the president of the airline will get pretty grumpy if the pilot doesn’t do this every time.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site


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