The Checklist: An Old-School Retail Operations Process That Still Works

A well-conceived checklist provides a means to inspect expectations.

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No pilot would ever dream of flying an airplane without the extensive use of pre-startup, pre-taxi and pre-takeoff checklists. Pilots know that checklists are the best way to ensure consistent operation—a necessary condition for safe flight.

But the use of checklists is by no means limited to flying. They definitely have a place in retail operations. Many retail leaders with responsibility for multiple locations find, to their frustration, that they are not able to consistently execute their programs across their entire organization. There are always facilities that execute appropriately and others that deliver inconsistent performance. Consistency is the key to the success of almost any operation and executing processes at the same level of effectiveness in all of your facilities will maximize your results.

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So how do you achieve consistent execution? The effective use of checklists is a great place to start.

A well-conceived checklist provides a step-by-step process for executing and inspecting expectations. It provides the ability to measure the true performance of your operation, enabling the delivery of a constant, known level of productivity and customer service throughout the organization.

To demonstrate the advantages achieved by using checklists, here are their two primary uses:

Clear Execution of Processes and Procedures: The checklist must enable the user to fully execute the expectation of the process. For example, a store-closing checklist would include: locking every perimeter door and window, ensuring that no one is hiding in the store (in a restroom, fitting room or storage closet), the daily deposit is locked in the safe and the burglar alarm is properly set.

Following this checklist at closing in every store every night will ensure that these things are done. The person completing the checklist should sign it so they have personal ownership for each item. Copies of completed checklists should then be maintained so that you can verify whether or not it is being followed. Of course, a checklist can be falsified (or “pencil whipped”) but then, if you discover that something on the checklist hasn’t been done, you can hold the person who completed the checklist accountable.

Ability to Inspect/Measure Processes and Procedures: An inspection tool ensures that processes and procedures are being followed and that they are executed properly. For example, district managers who visit their locations on a regular basis should have a checklist that requires them to inspect the things that you want to be consistently executed in all of your facilities.

The reality is that district managers usually have their own way of conducting a visit, which is often based on their individual personalities and/or experience. For example, a district manager who is an operator will focus on operational areas, while a district manager who is a merchant will focus on the product and how it is displayed.

A checklist will require them to consistently look at the same things to ensure that they are being done and done properly. This does not mean that checklists alone should be used to manage locations. Every facility is unique, so the district manager still needs to inspect and address current issues such as unfilled jobs and other issues specific to that location. However, the checklist should remain a requirement and a priority, leading to consistent inspections in all locations.

Flexible in Design, Consistent in Execution

Although most items on a checklist should remain constant, checklists should not be carved in stone. They should be modified as needs, processes, and business focuses change. For example, properly checking in product and documenting discrepancies may be an issue throughout the year, but other issues may arise and the checklist can be revised to include them.

A checklist can be a paper document or an online file. It doesn’t matter, as long as you can audit whether or not the checklist has been followed and who conducted it. It can also be archived and used for additional purposes such as performance comparisons between locations.

You can also use checklists to identify common findings. If all of the district managers identify the same issue, you can investigate the cause and address it. For example, if all locations are not processing their merchandise and getting it out to the sales floor on schedule, there may be a problem at the distribution center or with the delivery service.

As a Training Tool

Another benefit of checklists is that they are an outstanding training tool. New employees often fail to execute processes because of insufficient training. Relying only on the training provided by their leader or computer-based training can lead to essential processes or actions being forgotten or missed.

These problems may be compounded, as these employees may eventually become the people who train new employees. A checklist ensures that new employees understand what they are required to do and leaves them with a clear roadmap to follow, reducing ambiguities and increasing certainty and confidence.

Even if you never use checklists to prepare for an airplane flight, it is clear that the effective use of checklists will provide consistency in the execution of retail processes and procedures, leading to improved productivity and better results.

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