Leading Off: Cut Down on Staff Mistakes by Embracing Checklists

Ben Boothe, Ed.D.
Ben Boothe, Ed.D.

In the Gardner Edgerton Unified School District 231, we have experienced our fair share of avoidable failures. After conducting autopsies of the actions that led to these failures, our leadership team identified two common mistakes made by staff members.

One common cause was failure to attend to routine details and tasks, especially in the midst of far more pressing issues. The second most common type of error occurred when people relied too heavily on experience or memory to guide them through an involved or complex activity, only to proceed through the process out of sequence or leave out critical steps.

Why Use Checklists

To avoid making (or even worse — repeating) mistakes, our school district has embraced the practice of using checklists for various projects across all levels and departments.

Another significant reason for using checklists is capturing institutional knowledge. As in most districts, we are fortunate to employ numerous people who have spent decades serving our students and families. We recognize and respect that veteran employees possess invaluable wisdom that previously had gone unaccounted for when they departed the organization. Checklists allow us to capture that knowledge and ensure that traditions continue despite staff departures.

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Types of Checklists

Boeing production test pilot Daniel Boorman, in the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, describes two types of checklists:

  • Read-Do: Read each step of the task, and then perform the steps in order, checking them off as completed.
  • Do-Confirm: Perform a number of steps of the task from memory until reaching a defined pause point, then advance through the checklist and confirm each step’s completion.

Gardner Edgerton USD 231 has developed several checklists that Boorman would consider “Read-Do.” We have various employees with differing skill sets and ability levels using these checklists. Many have never done the work before or may only work on a complex task or particular project (for example, graduation set-up, hosting a retirement dinner, organizing a senior citizen luncheon, etc.) once a year. In the latter types of projects, we have found it is almost impossible for employees to remember every detail necessary to prepare for these events successfully.

Characteristics of an Effective Checklist

Checklists can increase efficiency while ensuring consistency and accuracy. These lists have become so commonplace in our district that staff members are conditioned to ask for them when beginning work on high profile projects. To ensure checklists are useful, the administrative team considers the following questions during development:

  • Is the list easy to understand? The employee should be able to pick it up and carry out the items listed with little to no assistance.
  • Is the list concise? If the number of items on the checklist is unreasonable, consideration is given to dividing the project into more manageable subtasks. The goal is to contain the checklist to one page or less.
  • Can the list be improved? Once a project is completed, the employee is asked for feedback, and the checklist is revised as needed. In some instances, this means providing more detail. In others, it means simplifying the list or removing steps if they are redundant or no longer applicable.

Examples of Checklists

In USD 231, the use of checklists began in the Educational Services Department with complex projects such as responding to and documenting student concussions, completing master schedules on time, conducting end-of-year checkout procedures, and many others.

Other departments, such as the Community Relations and Health Services departments, began to recognize the increase in efficiency and decrease in stress levels experienced by the Educational Services team and incorporated checklists into their work. As shown by the following examples, checklists are applicable in almost every area.

One More Checklist Type to Consider

The Community Relations Department uses another type of checklist: monthly email folders. Much of what educators do every year is recurring and, therefore, can easily lull them into thinking they will recall what must be done every month. This checklist was developed to avoid falling into that trap.

As you can see in the screenshots below, an umbrella folder (Community Relations) was created containing a subfolder for each calendar month. The second screenshot is a view of the emails that are sent every September. Once the email is sent, the previous year’s version is replaced with the current year’s, serving as a reminder of what messages have already been and still need to be sent. If a task requires multiple emails every year, subfolders are created to address all components of a project (for example, Senior Citizen Luncheon in September).

Still Not Convinced?

If you’re like many educators, your workload continues to expand, tasks are becoming increasingly complex, and there is a constant need to acquire new knowledge and adapt it to new challenges. A project may fail because someone refused or forgot to chronicle the lessons learned from a previous year or did not leave a roadmap for those who follow.

Instead of resorting to old ways of thinking, like “I’ll get it right next year” or “We need to schedule training to address this failure,” why not consider taking the time to create and maintain a checklist? It may seem simplistic or unsophisticated, but checklists can become a part of your organization’s collaborative culture and prevent future headaches.


Author Ben Boothe, Ed.D., is director of community relations for the Gardner Edgerton Unified School District 231, Gardner, Kan. Contact him at bootheb@usd231.com.