Fixing the Weak Link

LEEDM.E.1967.0032.G.13 He thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but she arrived apoplectic.  Some of the folks who worked with her had dropped the ball on a project that was routine and should have been foolproof.

She thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but he arrived apoplectic.  Someone had asked his help on a project, but frequently failed to send him the necessary documents — even when those documents were mentioned in the transmittal note.

This couple is headed for high blood pressure problems or, at the very least, indigestion.  I suspect they are not the only ones.

Why do simple things get messed up? Look for the weak link.  In the first instance, the weak link was between two parts of the organization that were handling a job together.  Because it was a collective effort, nobody felt responsible because everyone was (theoretically) responsible.  In the second case, the weak link lay in the person transmitting the documents carelessly.

Fixing the weak link is tough because by the time you confront it, you’re often in a towering rage.  So, the first step is to sleep on it.  If that’s not possible, at least count to 10 before commencing. Then, take a look at the procedure surrounding the weak link.  In the first case, each part of the organization had a checklist for handling their part of the process.  However, someone failed to follow the checklist. And the organization had not created a checklist to cover the handoff.  This handoff checklist could have acted as a secondary check, another chance to catch a error before it developed into a real problem. In the second case, the problem arose in…the handoff between the person sending the documents and the recipient.  They clearly did not have a checklist that the first person could follow to ensure that all relevant materials were sent to the recipient when promised.

Peter Bregman believes that problems arise in the handoff phase because of poor communication:

Most of us think we communicate well. Which, ironically, is why we often leave out important information (we believe others already know it). Or fail to be specific about something (we think others already understand it). Or resist clarifying (we don’t want to insult other people).

To address this problem, Bregman recommends that we develop and use a handoff checklist along the following lines:

Handoff Checklist

  • What do you understand the priorities to be?
  • What concerns or ideas do you have that have not already been mentioned?
  • What are your key next steps, and by when do you plan to accomplish them?
  • What do you need from me in order to be successful?
  • Are there any key contingencies we should plan for now?
  • When will we next check-in on progress/issues?
  • Who else needs to know our plans, and how will we communicate them?

Time it takes to go through the checklist? One to five minutes. Time (and trust) saved by going through the checklist? Immeasurable.

If you’re tempted to ignore the need for a handoff checklist or a checklist of any sort, take a few minutes to read this collection of sad (and in some cases, scary) stories of what happens when people fail to create or follow checklists.  If you want to learn more about checklists, read my prior post, The Value of Checklists.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that taking the time to develop and follow a checklist that addresses the weak link can save lives, save time and possibly save you from high blood pressure and indigestion.