The Case Against Checklists

Imagine running a convenience store, or any retail store for that matter, without employing checklists. There are checklists for every job position, shift and every job-related task and duty under the sun. Eliminating checklists would cause utter chaos, right?

My company is great at developing checklists designed to raise the game of your employees, improve customer service and help retailers profitably grow their business. So, why am I writing a column against checklists?

To be clear, I’m not entirely against checklists, as they serve an important role in performing one’s job, reducing errors and ensuring consistency and predictability. But like everything else in life, checklists have their downside as well. And that downside is the suffocation of innovation, curiosity and exploring new ways of getting things done.


The primary job of any organization is to produce good products, services and outcomes; not to avoid errors. Management controls are necessary for any well-run enterprise to increase predictability and reduce errors. Errors are costly, and all measures should be taken to reduce costly errors that hurt the company, its employees and its customers. Excessive management controls, however, get in the way of new insights and fresh thinking because they impose costs, time and effort for making changes.

The downside of checklists is that they intentionally induce mindlessness. We just have to follow the steps and not think about them. This way of thinking (and managing) suppresses innovation and creativity because everything has to fit neatly within the confines of the checklist. The important thinking has already been done by the checklist designers.

When we follow checklists and procedures manuals, we disengage our active thinking process -- just the reverse of the inquiring mindset that generates insights.


Every company today, large and small, is looking for a competitive advantage. In today’s highly competitive, fast-paced world, competitive advantages are hard to find and their expiration dates are getting shorter. Liberating the collective genius of your company (employee brainpower) is a powerful competitive advantage if you have the courage to do so.

We pay our employees and in exchange for money, we get their hands and back: labor. But what about their brains? Overreliance on rules, policy and procedure manuals -- and yes, checklists -- sends a message to employees to park their brains at the front door and pick them up when their shift is over since they’ll need it to be a responsible citizen.

Company rules, policies, procedures and checklists should be designed to guide performance, not control performance with an iron-hand of what to do and what not to do. Checklists should facilitate high-performance from your employees and be flexible so as to encourage innovation and creativity on how to perform their jobs better.

If those two employees at McDonald's and Starbucks were instructed to “Follow the checklist; don’t ever deviate from the checklist; no need to think, the thinking has been done for you,” then we would not have the Egg McMuffin or Frappuccino today.

Lucky for McDonald's and Starbucks, those two employees brought their brains to work that day and kudos to their store managers for creating an environment where employees felt safe to discuss their ideas for improving the business. These are hourly employees mind you.


The only long-term, sustainable competitive advantage you can hope for are your people.

If your employees are more committed, more passionate, smarter and constantly using their brains for how to make your business more profitable and the best place for customers to visit, that my friend is a very powerful competitive advantage. A competitive advantage without an expiration date!