Make a List, Check It Twice, and Add a Small Carrot

Checklists have proven value but your employees balk at using them. Next time, get their input and sweeten the deal

The essentials

  • In a study of checklist use in auto repair shops, the number of repairs carried out increased by 12 percent a week, employees worked an average of 213 more minutes per week, and revenue jumped by 22 percent. Workers earned 10 percent more in commissions.
  • While substantial monetary incentives boosted checklist use, revenue in some cases was lower than when no checklists were used.
  • Effective checklists are streamlined, user friendly, and designed with employee input. Modest incentives combined with clear accountability increase the odds that checklists will be used over time.

Behold the humble yet mighty checklist. This simple management technique is credited with improving revenue and productivity in fields such as aviation and engineering; in healthcare and military environments, checklists can mean the difference between life and death. Checklist adoption has been shown to reduce the rates of surgical complications and mortality by a stunning 40 percent. Firms such as Boeing, which famously produces more than 100 checklists a year for the many different situations pilots might encounter, swear by their efficacy.

Their usefulness isn’t limited to STEM environments. “You make a grocery list for the supermarket. You make a to-do list for your day,” says Henry Schneider, associate professor at Smith School of Business. “The actual value may vary a little bit depending on the setting, but I think it applies to what almost everybody does on almost a daily basis.”

Schneider and colleague C. Kirabo Jackson, a labour economist at Northwestern University, decided to research the benefits of checklists in an unlikely setting. In a field test, employees at three auto repair shops were asked by their firm to use checklists designed to guide them through a thorough car inspection. The employees were instructed to use them for “as many cars as they comfortably could” and to turn in their checklists to supervisors at the end of each week.

The results? Productivity and profit both increased dramatically. The number of repairs carried out increased by 12 percent a week, employees worked an average of 213 more minutes per week, and revenue jumped by 22 percent, with workers’ commission getting a 10 percent boost. Even without any training or team building, there was a definite improvement in several key measures of success.

But what’s powering those benefits? According to Schneider’s research, a checklist boosts outcomes by serving both as a memory aid and as a tool that facilitates employee monitoring.

“Many cases of checklist use employ some mix of mechanisms,” Schneider says. “One of the things checklists do in healthcare is they allow, say, nurses to oversee doctors to ensure doctors are following the right steps. It’s a monitoring device in a way that I think hasn’t received full attention.”

Employee Resistance

Overall, a well-implemented checklist protocol is clearly a win-win for both employers and employees. Yet the biggest problem with checklists is that, despite their revenue-earning and life-saving potential, employees simply don’t use them voluntarily. Indeed, Schneider’s auto mechanics stopped using checklists as soon as management stopped collecting them.

So how can managers encourage employees to use checklists?

The answer is to tread lightly. In Schneider’s research, the promise (or threat) of managerial monitoring was enough to bring revenue up by 22 percent and boost productivity by 12 percent, but mechanics were still using checklists only 30 percent of the time. In his second study, mechanics at six auto shops were incentivized even further, with the promise of a $400 payout at the end of six weeks if they used checklists “most of the time.”

No surprise, checklist use surged: mechanics used checklists on 68 percent of the cars that came through the shop. The benefits, however, were lackluster compared to Schneider’s first experiment. Revenue was significantly lower — sometimes lower than it was with no checklist use at all, thanks to that $400 payout — and it didn’t motivate mechanics to stay at work any longer than the monitoring alone did.

Smart Incentives

The key to successful incentivizing, it turns out, is to motivate workers without pulling their attention from other productive tasks. When incentives are too high (say, $400 too high), it pulls much-needed manpower away from other necessary work, such as conducting some of the actual repairs that were found with the checklists. This leads to higher checklist use but lower revenue and productivity overall. Managers can strike a middle ground by offering more modest monetary incentives (such as $100 a month) and ensuring more active managerial monitoring of employees’ checklist use.

“It's important for management to think less about what workers should do,” Schneider says. “They should think about the reality of what workers are actually going to do. Move away from this idealism and say, what do we need to do to get the workers to actually use them?”

Employers should also focus on crafting quick, effective checklists that cover critical tasks in minimum time. “Get worker input in terms of designing the checklist,” Schneider recommends. “The actual operations of designing checklists is pretty complicated, and it may require a fair bit of iteration to get the right number of items on the checklist, the right content, and right ordering of items. All that requires trial and error and feedback from workers.”

All too often, when employees resist using checklists, it’s because the lists have been created with minimal levels of employee feedback or engagement and handed down by management with little to no explanation. Checklists that are too time-consuming or broad (so that they don’t match up specifically with the task at hand) simply will not be used. To be effective, employers must make checklist use streamlined, user-friendly, and rewarding, and workers must be held accountable for using them.

Once managers follow this checklist of checklists, they’ll be in a better position to earn employee support and reap the benefits of this mighty mite management technique.

Kenza Moller

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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