Thirty years ago when the notion of improving processes began to get traction in the U.S., it held great promise. But one problem has kept the promise from becoming a full reality.

It’s too complicated!

How many organizations have shelves of binders chalk full of process maps and standard operating procedures? Lots. With the hope of improving performance it is common that the hard work is done to document processes and standard operating procedures.  Again, the hope is to once and for all eliminate the confusion.

The problem is once it’s written down no one ever looks at the binder again. Unless it’s time for training new employees and then we dust off the binders and hope maybe this batch of people will follow standard procedures.

I have struggled with this dilemma for a long time myself because I know the value of understanding how work should be done – the value of using processes to accumulate and transfer knowledge. I write a lot about management as a process in my book Business at the Speed of Now. But the freight ain’t worth the price.

There is a simpler way. Like in the classic scene in the movie The Graduate, its one word that matters most.  While Dustin Hoffman’s character was told it was all about “plastics”, in the case of process improvement you would well advised to understand “Checklist.”

If you want people to follow a process, create a process checklist that focuses them on the handful of factors that determine the processes success. Here are three things to think about in creating a useful checklist:

  1. Keep it simple – never more than 10 items
  2. Avoid the classic checkbox; instead require the recording of useful data (a dimension, the cycle time it took, a category or type of repair, etc.)
  3. Use the data collected to monitor performance, make further improvements and learn

If you put the right things on your checklist, the most important things for the people who work the process to pay attention to, you will get all the benefit of that boring material in the binder without following that hideous manual you know you put somewhere.

A great book to learn more about this is The Checklist Manifesto. I recommend it.