How to Overcome Barriers Using Checklists

So you’ve created a checklist. Now what do you do with it? Even a great idea with a lightning fast return on investment will meet resistance somewhere along the line. Creating and adopting new systems is challenging. Even beginning the process may require overcoming objections. You may encounter some of the following objections from yourself and others:

  • “I’m too busy now. I’ll wait until things settle down.”
  • “I don’t need these checklists; I know this stuff.”
  • “There’s no way to create a system for this. It’s too complex… What about this? And this?”
  • “It’s all in my head. Why do I have to put it into writing?”
  • “If other people know how to do this, I can be replaced.”

How to Address Barriers to Implementation

These are real barriers that can and will bog down creating and implementing any new system. Although we will address them in greater detail, we do so with the caveat that creating change in an organization is a huge topic, indeed a field of study, and there are many excellent books on the subject that address the issue in greater detail. We would be remiss if we suggested that this book can give you everything you need to know about the difficult process of creating change in your office. At best, we can give you examples that have worked for some and, if you need more information, we have included resources you might consider.

We have found that it helps to have a bit of a strategy to start with. First, you have to have a clear vision of what your office will be like with the new process in place. For example, if you are waking up in the middle of the night with anxiety about a missed deadline, then maybe your vision is sleeping soundly because you are confident that you know all of the statute dates in your office. Whatever the issue, think of how your office will be once the solution is reached. Communicate this vision to the people who will need to be a part of creating the solution.

Once you have a vision, you can identify the common goal, for example, documenting office workflow. If this goal sounds incredibly daunting, do not become disheartened. Take a breath and then break the goal down into smaller parts. Perhaps you will decide that office workflow consists of two parts: staff workflow and lawyer workflow.

Ultimately, you will want the checklist to have steps (action items) that will lead to your goal and contribute to your vision. Using the example of office workflow, perhaps one of the actions is to develop a checklist for receptionist workflow. To accomplish that, you need a phone script for the receptionist, instructions on greeting clients, and instructions on opening and sorting the mail. These scripts and instructions will then be assembled into a handbook. These are actionable items that someone in your office can perform. You may choose to do them yourself, or you may delegate them appropriately, but be sure to take the time to follow up.

Once the initial work has been completed, it becomes an iterative process of implementation, evaluation, and modification. Any system will eventually need updates and changes, so work toward a good checklist, not a perfect one. Strategy is good, but if you need input from others to accomplish the action items, which, unless you are a solo practitioner, you likely will, you may encounter some resistance. Perhaps you are even thinking that this all sounds too time consuming.

Recently, Molly was wrestling with unfamiliar functions in Microsoft Word as she numbered proposed jury instructions. She thought to herself, “If I had just manually gone through and created this, I’d be done by now!” She prevailed and the template she created will undoubtedly need tweaking, but it will ultimately prevent any staff member from ever having to number jury instructions manually again. Her template will prevent the inevitable errors that result from quickly reviewing the numbers and will make rearranging the instructions easy.

The psychology of change affects the process of creating and implementing checklists in several ways. It explains why both the creation and implementation phases can be exhausting. Scrutinizing workflow requires making conscious choices about habits and routines that are often performed without thinking. Implementing new processes requires discipline, which can be in short supply on days where other challenges have drained your reserves.

The excellent book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,18 extrapolates the psychological condition of “decision fatigue.” Research shows that an individual’s ability to forego immediate small rewards (completing a project) to obtain a delayed larger reward (a template that makes the task easier in the long run) is a limited resource. Similarly, self-control (resisting temptation), making choices, and decisions are like strength or energy. They can all become depleted, leading to costly or foolish decisions as illustrated in the article “The Psychology of Irrationality: Why People Make Foolish, Self-Defeating Choices, by Roy F. Baumeister.”19

Call it self-discipline, self-control, or whatever you choose, but understand that for yourself and your staff, it is a limited resource. This has implications for the implementation of checklists. If you try to implement too many checklists at once, the natural reaction will be to ignore the new procedure and do things in a familiar, and therefore easier, way. However, with patience and perseverance, new habits can be created. If you anticipate these challenges and plan for them, you can proceed despite the inevitable setbacks. It is important to celebrate and track the small accomplishments, so that the group creating and implementing the systems and checklists can see the progress.

Common Mindsets and How to Address Them

In working through the process of developing systems, there are several common themes or excuses for keeping the status quo. Let’s tackle the few we mentioned previously. Some of these mindsets overlap, but each is addressed below.

“I’m too busy now. I’ll wait until things settle down.”

“I’m too busy” is probably the most pervasive and most challenging perception you will encounter in business or in life. At times, we are all guilty of saying it, or at least feeling it. The reality is that it’s not about time; it’s about priorities. Numerous books have been written about how to identify, prioritize, and better use your time. Because for lawyers time directly correlates to money, it is easy for them to delay a project, even if it will ultimately save time, because they do not want to spend the time upfront.

One way to address that mindset is to force yourself to make it a priority. Schedule the time on your calendar. Set aside fifteen minutes every day to focus on workflow. Treat this time as if it were a meeting with a very important client. Just as people find success when they go to the gym with a friend, enlist a colleague in the project, or at least commit to the goal publically, and charge colleagues with the follow up.

If you think that in fifteen minutes you can’t possibly accomplish anything, try this tack:
pick one small, manageable thing and stick with it until you have a decent draft of a checklist
for it. Breaking down seemingly insurmountable tasks (office procedures) into small ones (the way you want your receptionist to answer the phone and take messages) is a proven way to get things done.

Give yourself the best chance of success. If you have a month where you will be traveling or are beginning a trial, wait until that major hurdle is over and give yourself a recovery period before launching into a project. Perhaps it is a better idea to gather resources, rather than to begin something that is destined to get sidelined. Then pick a definite start date because it will give you a fighting chance at success.

Make the economic argument. If you are struggling with the value of taking the time to create a system or checklist, think about the return on investment of that time. What do you do now that could be streamlined or avoided if you had a system or checklist? Is there a question you are frequently asked? Is there something you do daily? Use your billable rate or hourly wage to figure out how much explaining the answer or doing the task costs. Seeing the cost savings can provide motivation.

“I don’t need these checklists; I know this stuff.”

Your position in the organization affects how you deal with this mindset. You may be able to say, Do it anyway, and people will listen, or you may have to go about it another way. No matter what, sincere flattery is an effective tool. If you tell people that they are amazing at their job and you’d like to know how they do it, they will very likely be eager to share the information.

Another option is to proceed without an approval. Subordinates might create systems and checklists to make their lives easier, and eventually leaders may recognize the value of these systems and checklists and follow suit.

Identifying and solving persistent problems is also a great way to help skeptics buy into ideas. If you can back up claims of effectiveness with numbers, it will help demonstrate to others that systems and checklists are a worthwhile investment of time.

Ultimately, it isn’t about whether people know something: it’s about making sure that the thing they know happens every time it is supposed to happen. The most mundane tasks are the ones that are the most easily forgotten, because they are so mundane. Even the people who espouse this mindset are sometimes wrong or have things go awry. As illustrated so clearly in The Checklist Manifesto, every surgeon knows the hygiene protocols necessary prior to surgery, but every year, surgeons forget.

Checklists and systems are about making sure that certain critical protocols actually happen in your office, every time, regardless of who is doing the work.

“There’s no way to create a system for this. It’s too complex.”

There will always be reasons not to do something, but the bottom line is that if you just start with the basics, you can then focus on the exceptions.

There are manuals for just about everything. Everything can be documented, even complex processes. Someone had to write the textbook on how to perform brain surgery, didn’t they? All you need may be the basics. Perhaps there are times when someone really does need to enlist the help of others in the office. We are not saying that checklists can take the place of the synergy of working with other people, but they can be used to create a system so that the questions really are for exceptional circumstances, rather than for those that are easily dealt with.

Again, systems can be complex and it can take time to develop them. This is the iterative process of drafting and revision that lawyers often use when writing. A system or checklist is not a static document. It can be changed or updated at any time.

“It’s all in my head. Why do I have to put it into writing?”

People make lists all the time. We document gifts to give, groceries to buy, and home projects to complete. Why then are people so resistant to documenting the things they do every day? You may remember to bring home the milk without a list, but you may not. Is your job any less important than your grocery list?

In addition, trying to remember everything (i.e., keeping it all in our heads) takes up space in our prefrontal cortex and uses energy on executory functions that can better be used for immediate tasks. This comes up a lot in multitasking. Keeping it in our heads results in some degree of forgetfulness and underperformance. If we could keep everything in our heads, why would we need calendars?

Dovetailing with some of the other objections, another reason for documenting things is the uncertainty of life. Sometimes the unthinkable happens. Accidents happen, employees leave, and, while no one wants to dwell on disaster, the bottom line is that a business that relies on one individual for everything will cease being a business without that individual.

This may also be an issue of ego. One lawyer I spoke with said that when she started implementing checklists, she had to “check [her] ego at the door.” That may be a more difficult task for some than for others. Again, remembering the basic vision may be helpful. For the lawyer I spoke with, that vision was leaving for a year and having everything run perfectly. Books such as those in Michael Gerber’s E Myth series describe the franchise revolution and the need to create a business that could be duplicated. Whether it actually is duplicated is not the point; instead, it is the concept that a parallel business could be opened and could function effectively using your systems and checklists. Again, this may be challenging for a solo lawyer to wrap his or her head around, but it illustrates a key principle of successful businesses; the individual does not equal the business.

“If other people know how to do this, I can be replaced.”

In some organizations, employees have concerns that if they share too much information, an individual will lose power and influence and possibly even the job. A certain pride comes with being the only one who knows how to do something.

In situations where people are having difficulties letting go of “their” knowledge, they can be reminded that good employees are not easily replaced. Employees are valuable for more than a particular skill set. While it is worthwhile, especially early in your career, to develop a reputation as the go-to person for a particular substantive area, simply having a certain skill set without any other elements of a good employee will not protect your job.

In addition, more knowledge creates more flexibility. The more people who know how to do a task, the greater likelihood the task can be accomplished no matter who is there. This may free up others to do work that is more in line with their interests or aptitudes or may enable them to leave for vacation without worrying that there will be an insurmountable backlog awaiting their return.

Ultimately, if you are taking the time to read this book, you must have a reason. If your practice is humming along smoothly, mistakes are never made, nothing is keeping you up at night, you have loyal and dedicated staff who know their responsibilities, then keep doing what you are doing. But ask yourself what you would do if a new employee started. Do you want to spend time doing a brain dump of how to do everything every single time someone is hired in your organization? Is that the best use of your time and resources? Unlikely. Think through how you can ease that transition.

18 Crown Business, 2010.
19 R. F. Baumeister, “The Psychology of Irrationality: Why People Make Foolish, Self-Defeating Choices” In: Brocas, I., Carrillo, J.D. (Eds.), The Psychology of Economic Decisions. Rationality and Well-Being, I. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 3–16.

Use Checklists to Improve Workflow 
This post was adapted from the Law Practice Division’s publication Checklists for Lawyers. In this book, authors Daniel J. Siegel, Molly Barker Gilligan and Pamela A. Meyers share how to create checklists for your everyday law practice to ensure that your tasks get accomplished correctly every time.

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Law Technology Today is the official legal technology blog from the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center (LTRC). Law Technology Today provides lawyers and other legal professionals with current, practical and innovative content developed by some of the leading voices on legal technology.

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  • Mike Polk

    I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing!