In 1935, Boeing's model 299 crashed into the ground during a test flight, killing two crew members.
The plane was newly designed to push the limits of flight—aluminum-alloy shell, four engines, a 103-foot wingspan, and it could carry 5x more bombs than what the military had initially requested. But none of that mattered because apparently, the plane couldn't fly.
Image courtesy of Clemens Vasters: Flickr
At least, that's what observers initially thought.
An investigation determined that the plane didn't crash because of poor engineering. That was the good news. The reason it crashed was because of user error. That was the bad news. One of the most experienced pilots on the team forgot to perform one little step during flight (disengage the gust locks), and the plane went down.
Even though the pilot was very experienced, it seemed that the model 299 was "too much airplane for one man to fly."
I'm sure that if a crash like that occurred today, management would have an all-hands call, schedule a week-long training session at a hotel, and prepare dozens of PowerPoint slide decks to re-hash what everybody already knows. But the test pilots who wanted to continue trying to fly the model 299 didn't do any of that. They already knew how to fly a plane. They just needed help remembering all of the steps.
So, they made checklists.
After the test pilots implemented checklists, they were able to log 1.8 million miles without a single accident on the model 299. The pilots proved that they could fly the model 299, and the plane became a staple in the military—the B-17 Flying Fortress. (Story adapted from The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.)
The workplace is complex
Your workplace isn't exactly the same as flying an airplane, but it is complex. Your co-workers and employees are doing multiple tasks at once during several interrupted intervals.
Watch an employee do her job, and you'll notice that while she is creating an opportunity in Salesforce (a relatively simple task), she might get a phone call, see an URGENT email come through, or have somebody knock on her door asking for the name of a report.
Employees are often interrupted several times while doing their jobs.
When she is updating a contact's record, there might be a last minute change that needs to be made to the record. The last minute change normally requires one or two databases to be manually updated—but since your employee opened the record to do one thing, and the task then changed midway through the process, she forgot to do all of the steps.
Tasks often change midway through the process.
Or somebody at work is on sick-leave, so she is asked to send a quote—a job that she's familiar with, but hasn't done in awhile. She forgets that along with sending a signed copy to the client, she's supposed to send a signed copy to another team. She knows how to send a signed copy to the team, she just forgot to do it.
Employees are often asked to wear many hats.
Even when your employees know how to do the jobs they are asked to do (just like the pilot who test flew the model 299 knew how to fly), they may forget to do one or two important steps. And while lives aren't in danger if your employees miss something, the workplace becomes stressful if data is inaccurate, processes are confusing, and employees feel like they are going through a "fire drill" when things get busy.
Consider replacing training with checklists
If your employees know how to do their jobs, but you are noticing several errors being made because steps are being forgotten, don't immediately schedule the all-hands call or the week-long training (and hold off on the PowerPoint slides).
Perhaps all you need are a few checklists.
Give your coworkers a checklist for creating opportunities so that when they come back from a distraction, they can make sure they submitted a credit check. Create a checklist for modifying contact records so that when the task changes, a specific checklist can be referenced to make sure all important databases were updated. Provide a few bullet points to help employees out when they are covering for a coworker and need to create a quote.
The beauty is that checklists are easy to make and easy to follow. So write down a few jobs that you notice aren't being done 100% correct every time, and create a checklist for them.