Checklists work. That’s why pilots use checklists. That’s why doctors use checklists. That’s why successful people use checklists.
Several years ago, I wrote an article for Mailing Systems Technology entitled, "Checklists – Simple and Powerful Tools." The article explained that the humble checklist helps prevent more errors than specialized equipment or software programs. A checklist provides protection against failures in your operation. A checklist reminds us of the minimum necessary steps. A checklist helps your staff be effective and efficient.
To be successful, checklists need to provide enough, but not too much detail. A checklist isn’t a “how-to” guide or instruction manual, but a quick and simple tool to buttress the skills of trained professionals. Certain tasks should always be included in checklists, especially:
1. Tasks that have been forgotten in the past.
2. Tasks that have been performed incorrectly in the past.
3. Tasks that are routine, yet critical.
4. Tasks that are the minimum necessary steps.
Opportunities for Checklists
A common task that’s forgotten in mail operations is checking the alignment of forms and addresses. These simple errors could cause barcodes to be read improperly or addresses not appearing correctly in the envelope window. A reminder to check alignment will prevent errors and returned mail.
In the past month, we’ve had multiple clients report problems with checks mailed by their service providers. In one case, the checks were printed on the wrong stock. In the other, the checks were printed upside down. Verifying that the correct stock is properly loaded in a printer is something that should be performed before and after every print run.
Selecting the correct mail class on a meter takes place with every job, every day. Forgetting to change the meter to “Presort” may mean that hundreds, if not thousands, of envelopes are metered with the wrong postage amount. An entire job may have to be processed, spoiled envelopes submitted for a refund, and extra paperwork completed.
These aren’t hypothetical scenarios. Each of the above errors are actual events. In many cases, the companies had well-documented procedures. Most had training programs for new operators. Some even had Six Sigma and lean manufacturing programs.
None had checklists.
Every manager should integrate checklists into the daily processes of their print-mail operation. Which checklists to create depends upon the answers to the four questions asked earlier. Checklists that address recent errors should be implemented first. When possible, make the lists open enough to address multiple issues. For example, printer checklists should cover all forms, not just checks.
How you implement the new lists should be given careful consideration. One option is to post lists on key pieces of equipment. Another is to create poster-sized reminders hung on the shop floor. The best option – make the lists part of the work order system, including verification.
A well-designed workorder already has key information – e.g., file name, paper type, and envelope stock. Additionally, the form will have space for the operators to validate piece count, samples, etc. This is a natural location for additional checkpoints.
In addition to the existing information, the work order can be modified to include acknowledging that key tasks have been completed. There should be brief bullets confirming file names, stocks, positioning, alignment, and piece counts. Next to each bullet, a space for the operator’s or supervisor’s initials.
The most common challenge with this method is when operators don’t respect the process. Instead of acknowledging a task when it’s actually done, a person might just initial the top line and then draw a line through to the end. Or, they may simply initial each line while a job is running or after it’s completed. The easiest shortcuts are the hardest to shut down.
Managers must be proactive with supporting the proper use of checklists. When introducing the new documentation, emphasize the importance of following the process. Share stories on how the checklists have prevented errors. At least once a week, use your daily/shift huddles to reinforce proper actions.
Make sure that the emphasis is on the positive impact of following the new procedures. Your team wants to do a good job, and the checklists help them be successful. Threats of corrective action have limited success. General Dennis Reimer wrote, “Discipline isn’t the fear of punishment for doing something wrong, it’s the faith in the value of doing something right.”
Celebrating the Success of Checklists
During my classes on checklists, whether in-person or on a webinar, I always use the story of US Airways Flight 1549, The Miracle on the Hudson. On January 15, 2009, CPT Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, landed a jet on the waters of the Hudson River after it had lost both engines when it hit a flock of birds. There were 155 people on that plane, and not a single life was lost.
Sully Sullenberger is a hero not just for his actions that day, but his actions afterwards. In every interview, he made it clear that the “successful” crash landing was because of the efforts of the entire crew. And that what he did was simple – he and the crew followed a series of checklists.
Checklists. Emergency checklists. Communications checklists. Passenger checklists. Evacuation checklists. In addition to the skills of CPT Sullenberger and his crew, checklists helped save those 155 people.
Most print and mail operations won’t have to use checklists to save a plane load of passengers. However, the work that they perform impacts people. Statements, policies, and similar documents allow companies to stay in contact with their customers. Checks deliver needed funds – whether to pay an invoice or an insurance claim. Direct mail helps all companies attract customers and grow their business.
Managers must celebrate the successes of checklists. When a customer takes the time to send an email or note about a job well done, it needs to be shared with every employee. Post “thank you” letters and emails in common areas, like break rooms or hallways. When a potential error is caught, the event should be applauded.
The simple checklist – a powerful tool to help you and your organization succeed.
Mark M. Fallon is President & CEO of The Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document processing strategies. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his blogs at www.berkshire-company.com/the-berkshire-company-blog or www.markfallon.com/blog
This article originally appeared in the March/April, 2021 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.