Using Checklists in Marketing

I have just finished reading “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande and found it an inspiring read. My intereste was caught by the idea of how a surgeon used checklists to make significant improvements in the success of operations.

Checklists seem to be dull and constraining. Surely they do not apply to us, as professionals, who are constantly using our experience to find better and more innovative ways to tackle tasks? But if it can help surgeons, with all their skill and their environment of dealing with different complications with each patient, maybe it can apply to those of us in less life-critical occupations, such as marketing.

The book provides excellent examples and reasoning to show how checklists can be used in all types of work. Atul Gawande comes across the idea of checklists mainly from other industries, such as in procedures for airline pilots, and examines how they can be used in his particular field, surgery. He looks at examples in businesses ranging from building construction to restaurants.

One of the great things about the book is the precision with which the author determines why checklists work. There are a very different set of constraints for projects involving the construction of skyscrapers, which take years to complete, compared to aircraft takeoffs (and emergencies) which take seconds or minutes. But he finds a common set of rules for how to create checklists.

During the process, he struggles with producing a checklist for the World Health Organisation to use in improving surgery for all operations in all hospitals worldwide. The first attempt turns out to be completely useless, but he consults experts, such as Daniel Boorman from Boeing, who spends his life producing and improving checklists on which millions of airline passengers depend as a crucial component of flying safely. In the end he produces a checklist which is trialled in eight hospitals in totally different environments from Washington to rural Tanzania and improved results everywhere, on average by 36% – a stunning success.

Two keys to a good checklist are identified. Firstly, you have to choose the few vital steps to include which cover the silly omissions and obvious mistakes that can be made, but still make the user responsible for applying their knowledge and experience in the main tasks. Secondly, there have to be steps which ensure the involvement of everyone in the team and encourages communication of everyone’s input.

These two steps seem really simple, and indeed many people dismiss checklists as unecessary because they cover what should be obvious points. But as Atul Gawande shows, without the discipline of checklists, things fall through the cracks – in fields such as surgery and building construction, this can be crucial to people’s safety, while in general business it can lead to major errors and poor performance.

The book shows that checklists can be adapted to help in all types of work and I thoroughly recommend it as a business read, as well as one for personal interest.

Now comes the disciplined part : to apply it to marketing tasks. But not to replace our skill and experience in producing great and innovative solutions for our companies and customers, but to provide solid foundations for our work on which our creativity can flourish. Take the use of social media for example: a checklist can make sure we have checked for all the input about our company and communicated with all departments necessary to reply to customer ideas or concerns. Then we can use our skill to craft the messages to send and the campaigns to launch.