Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The power of lists

This Sunday I drove to Oxelösund, about 100km south of Stockholm, to meet a friend. He works on an oil transporter ship, which berthed there for a couple of hours. We had some time to talk and at some point in our chat we got to discuss about work.

Loading a big ship with fuel oil can be regarded as a short term project. It's quite complex, comprising a couple of phases and things to be checked in each phase. He mentioned that they have strict procedures for everything.

This made me think a bit about lists. Most of us probably do build grocery lists, with an obvious purpose to not forget needed products. Like milk. I make a list most of the times I go to the grocery store, but when I don't, I usually forget something. Like dish washing detergent last time.

The loading procedure on my friend's ship has a list of things to do, which is written down. Everybody knows the items on it, but still, the list resides in a document. They check each point on the list as soon as it is completed, so in the end they know they followed the whole procedure religiously.

Making a list of steps in order to accomplish some work task might be helpful for you and for your colleagues as well. As the process evolves, the list is also likely to grow. New steps are added and why store them in our minds instead of some other place, from where they can easily and correctly be picked up later.

Some people don't want to reveal inner details of their work flow. They believe that keeping it secret will make them irreplaceable. But then, if you're irreplaceable, how can you advance?

When doing a task consisting of a couple of steps, consider making a list for each. It might be obvious for you at the moment, but it will help the others be productive if they need to get into that area. If it's not the case, are you sure you'll remember everything two months from now?


Eduard said...

I like the article especially the fact that is related to a line of business extremely different from day to day tech companies :). In every line of business there are steps and procedures and some of the cases deviating just a little bit could cost human lives. In other businesses (IT for example) the importance of those lists(who are transformed in heavy procedures) is, in most of the cases, overrated becoming a bottle neck and a source of bureaucracy (heavy word to write :) ). We can reach in some point in which for tree lines of code we loose 3 days to implement them because of the procedures. My idea is that lists are essential but keeping them simple is crucial. Again..nice article.

Pawel Brodzinski said...

Checklists are great not only to help you following some procedure but also as a tool to learn something new. When you find some issue to fix during post mortems it's easier to throw the solution to a checklist which helps you not to forget about the thing another time.

Paul Marculescu said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

I agree, Pawel. Building and maintaining checklists is also a way to polish your workflow in the future.

Eduard, it all depends on the list. Of course, in software, if you can build it rather that explaining it, do it. But sometimes listing what you intend to do may reveal aspects you didn't consider.