Checklists – How to Get Things Right

May 25, 2018

Charlie looks at checklists and explains how they can be used to improve an organisation’s response to an incident.

This week I have been in the Dominican Republic, working with a client on rolling out their new business continuity incident management app. Although we have delivered the training before, this was the first time that the country incident management teams were able to get hands-on use of the app. 

The app is brilliant, and it is designed to get incident teams to collaborate together to manage an incident. At the core of the app is a series of checklists to help them manage a range of different incidents, communicate with different stakeholders and give a series of recovery actions. 

There are a number of different scenarios covered, from fires to floods and from severe weather to active shooter. About 15 of the scenarios deal with the initial response to the incident. It is interesting that instead of the app being made available to all staff, it will only be be used by the incident management team at country level and at plant or local office level. The checklists are therefore written for the incident team to check the actions are being carried out at the scene of the incident, rather than for the person responding to the fire having a hose in one hand and smartphone in the other, reading the action he is meant to be taking.

The use of scenario-based business continuity is rather old fashioned. The present take on an incident is “I have a plan for the loss of my premises and I don’t care why it has happened, I am only interested in planning a response”. You used to see thick plans with a list of actions for fires, floods, explosions etc. and when you looked at the checklists they were almost exactly the same. They bulked up the plan and made it difficult for the person responding to know which checklist to use. If the incident involves an explosion which leads to a fire, which checklist do you use or do you need to use both? Using an app makes it easier, as you don’t get a huge number of different checklists to decide between. On the app we were using, it had a simple list of the scenarios and in one click you were in the relevant checklist. Even with an app you still get the dilemma of explosion and fire so you still need to reference both checklists.

As part of the training, we carried out an exercise using the app checklist. The first part of the scenario was a response to a truck accident. The team’s initial task was to write a list of the tasks which needed to be carried out in response to the incident. The team brainstormed a random list of tasks and it was only when the Country President suggested they use the relevant app checklist did they get a concise and comprehensive list of tasks to be carried out. This showed that checklists really do help when faced with a problem which needs a quick list of actions to be carried out.

The idea of checklists ties in with my notion of ‘3g Business Continuity (3gBC)’ and improving business continuity plans. Many of the plans I see are over-engineered and, although they contain lots of good information, they are not user friendly which makes them unlikely to be used during an incident. During exercises, I often see the team take one look at the plan, decide it is too complex, throw it in the corner and then make up the response as they go along. If they do this during an incident, they may as not have a business continuity plan and they could spend their time and money on something more beneficial to the business.

In 3gBC, I suggest simplifying the plan and making it easier to use. I have not been brave enough to carry this out yet, although I will be soon! I propose having client’s plans on two sides of A4, which gives them a road map of how to manage the incident with some simple checklist of actions or activities they need to carry out. I recognise that if you go to the regulator with two sides of A4 and say that is your plan, eyebrows may be lifted, which is why you need to accompany it with a document which could be larger and include more details. The two-page plan could have cross references to the parts of the more substantial document, so the main plan would be accessible to people and they would be more likely to follow the actions, path and checklists laid out in it. 

I think us BC professionals need to make more use of checklists and try to simplify our response, so that the work we do in preparation is actually used when responding to an incident. Checklists can really help, but if you actually try writing them, as I have found, they are actually much harder to compose than you think. The ones for the app have had numerous rewrites and revisions! 

If you are looking for a good book on checklists and the different types read the “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Atul Gawande.

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