Checklists: A Simple Tool with Complex Benefits

The volume and complexity of our knowledge has exceeded our ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely and reliably. Checklists can help us navigate this complexity and avoid harmful mistakes.

Avoidable mistakes are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely and reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us. We need a tool to help us navigate complexity and avoid unnecessary and harmful mistakes.

The Solution: Checklists

Checklists by themselves are not the proverbial “silver bullet” that will eliminate all mistakes, but they will help reduce mistakes and improve our quality and effectiveness. I have had multiple teams earn quality certifications like the MPTQM (Mail Processing Total Quality Management) from the U.S. Postal Service and ISO-9001. A key component to earning these certifications and ensuring consistent quality in our operations is the use of checklists. Our ultimate goal is not just to have people ticking boxes on a checklist. Our ultimate goal is to have our teams embrace a culture of teamwork, discipline and quality—and checklists can be a useful means to that end.

Benefits of Checklists

Here are some of the benefits they bring. Checklists:

1. Help with memory recall and clearly set out the necessary steps in a process. This provides verification and helps ensure consistency.

2. Establish standards of good performance and help ensure proper execution.

3. Help defend everyone—even the experienced—against making mistakes. They also help combat complacency.

4. Serve as a “cognitive net.” They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory, attention and thoroughness.

5. Serve as a great training tool to help ensure people are completing tasks correctly.

For me the bottom line is that checklists can help eliminate “stupid” mistakes. In some fields like medical, aviation and construction these avoidable mistakes have not only cost organizations millions of dollars, they have also cost people their lives. In our industry normally lives are not at stake, but service to our customers, avoiding risk, making money for our shareholders and creating a high-performance culture for our employees are all on the line.

Wes Friesen is the manager of Billing, Credit and Special Attention Operations for Portland General Electric. He manages CIS billing, specialized billing, electronic bills and payments, credit and collections and OPUC and special attention operations. Wes and the PGE print and mail team have earned many national awards, such as the IPMA Management Award, four NAPL Gold Awards and numerous PCC awards. Wes received the Franklin Award in 2010 for his contributions to the mail industry. For the past 27 years Wes has been a university instructor and a speaker at conferences. He has written numerous articles for trade journals. Wes earned a B.S. in Business Administration from George Fox University and an MBA from the University of Portland. He can be contacted at:

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