Make a List

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 I'm a great believer in builders learning lessons from other professions, so I was pleased to find that the medical profession has something to learn from builders too. Atul Gawande, a surgeon who teaches at Harvard and writes on health care for The New Yorker, has written a book extolling the benefits of checklists in reducing medical errors. Surgery is a complex, high-stakes enterprise that involves planning, teamwork, and--one hopes--flawless execution. (Sound like anything you do? Yep, I thought so too.) And would anyone attempt such an undertaking-be it a coronary bypass or condo build-out--without a crib sheet? Well, apparently doctors do it all the time. And according to Gawande, when those doctors are persuaded to swallow their pride and back themselves up with a simple checklist, outcomes improve dramatically.

Most of the better builders I know are fanatical about checklists. This year's Custom Builder of the Year has compiled a document he calls Site Manager's No-Brainers, a list of dos and don'ts that guides his crews through every stage of the construction process. Like many other builders, he compiles the collective wisdom and experience of his company in order to standardize procedures, avoid reinventing the wheel, reduce stress, and avoid errors. It's a bit of a mind-blower that surgeons aren't doing the same thing on a routine basis, but according to Gawande, they aren't.

Another list I've been fascinated with is from a fellow who is blogging about starting up a new restaurant: 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do. Here are a few choice items:

8. Do not interrupt a conversation. For any reason. Especially not to recite specials. Wait for the right moment.

10. Do not inject your personal favorites when explaining the specials.

14. When you ask, "How's everything?" or "How was the meal?" listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.

18. Know before approaching a table who has ordered what. Do not ask, "Who's having the shrimp?"

32. Never touch a customer. No excuses. Do not do it. Do not brush them, move them, wipe them or dust them.

40. Never say, "Good choice," implying that other choices are bad.

43. Never mention what your favorite dessert is. It's irrelevant.

I like this list for two reasons: First, it's fun to view the experience of dining out from the perspective of the server rather than that of the customer. More importantly, though, it reminds me that every job can benefit from lists of dos, don'ts, procedures, and sequences. That goes for those that require a great deal of technical training and organizational ability, like surgery or project management, as well as for those that seem to require mostly finesse and people skills, like waiting tables. I'm going to make some for my own job. -Bruce D. Snider



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