How to Create Checklists that Don’t Stink — Put Out the Fires!

How to Create Checklists that Don’t Stink

Have you ever gone into a public restroom where you were scared to touch the walls, fixtures, or even the sink?  Sometimes it's the smells that scare you, and sometimes it's the sights.  Either way, a poorly maintained public restroom is a thing nightmares are made of.

Trust me, I know—for more than two years I managed four heavily used public restrooms while working as a retail supervisor.  You know when you have dreams about work?  Yeah, I had more than one horrifying dream during that time.

Sure, I saw some oozy doozies, but in reality, compared to your average restroom, our restrooms were immaculate.  At one point in time the regional manager came to our store to conduct a standards review.  He commented how impressed he was with the cleanliness and upkeep of our two employee restrooms and two customer restrooms.  After all, he inspected various retail establishments each month, and nice restrooms are hard to come by. 

Things were going well until we were exiting the restrooms and he saw the sheet of paper that our employees use to inspect the restrooms each hour.  A scowl crossed his face.

"This isn't the standard restroom checklist that you are supposed to be using.  You are going to lose points for that," he chided.

I knew this might happen.  While I hoped he wouldn't notice our customized checklist, it was a risk I willingly took months before when we deviated from the standard checklist to make our own.  I have to say, I was happy to lose the points.  The fresh smell and lack of cringe that our 150+ employees and 200+ customers experienced every day from our clean restrooms was worth a few docked points on a standards review.

Here's the conundrum we faced: do we embrace a deviant checklist and clean restrooms OR tolerate a standard checklist and icky restrooms?

Well, I like to DO WHAT WORKS.  So you can guess what I opted for.  REBEL ONCE AGAIN!

Doing What Works

I'm not really a rebel by nature, but I love optimizing for effectiveness.  When a system works well, it makes me happy.  Doing what is expected is secondary to doing what makes sense.

Maybe you are wondering what was wrong with the standard checklist that the regional manager wanted us to use.  Take a look and consider some questions along with me:

Click to Zoom

  • What should employees look for when inspecting the restroom?


  • What challenges might arise if you as a manager want to keep a record of completed checklists?

Here's what your employee might be thinking:

  • What do you imagine employees would put in the "Week of" spot?

Want a hint?

Let's Try Again

As I mentioned before, I had spent a few months using the standard checklist above.  I gave it a fair shot, but the fires I had to put out (e.g. employee confusion, interruptions, lost quality, and headaches) as a result convinced me there had to be a better way.

I spent a few hours rewriting the checklist, and VOILA!  The fires were extinguished as easily as flushing a toilet!

Here is a look at the revised checklist and some of the benefits it brought:

Click to Zoom

At the end of each week, I knew right where to go to find the completed checklists that my employees had turned in from the week before.

More Details

I also new exactly which restroom each checklist was for and the date was easy to figure out.

More Details

In addition, employees knew how to fill in the boxes, what to inspect each hour, what to do with the checklist at the end of the week, and how to replace the old checklists with new ones.

In short: it worked a lot better than the original checklist.

Principles of Systems-Building

This case study emphasizes a few principles of creating checklists and other systems/processes that are useful to keep in mind.

1. Keep systems as simple as possible, but no simpler.

If you look at my two checklist examples side by side, you may at first glance prefer the first one because it looks so clean and simple.  Simple is good, but if it is too simplistic, it won't accomplish what you need it to.

After creating a system (e.g. documenting a process), you can test it out to make sure it accomplishes what it is supposed to accomplish.  One of the tests I do is ask a few people who are unfamiliar with the process to follow the documented instructions.  If they can complete the task without asking questions of clarification, then I feel confident I have developed a solid system.

2. Systems need to be visible.

If you make a checklist, employees need to know how to access it.  Are your checklists placed in easily visible areas? Do employees know where to go to get the answers?  (Hopefully not straight to your office!)

3. Nearly every single system exists in context with other systems.

As you may have inferred from looking at our new and improved checklist, other systems were at play in this retail environment that affected how the checklist needed to be used.  For accountability and legal reasons, our store kept track of checklists for at least one year.  We did not want employees to throw the checklists away.  We also wanted to know how thoroughly each of the four restrooms was being maintained.  

That's why it was important for employees to keep track of each checklist and put them in the team binder at the end of each week.  I had another system in place that reminded me to gather the checklists from the team binder, review them to see how thorough my employees were performing, and then place them in a specific file cabinet.

Another small system that you may have wondered about from looking at the revised checklist is how we could ensure that there are always new blank checklists in the front of the team binder.  When an employee came to the last checklist in the front flap of the binder, the checklist had "Master" written on it with a yellow highlighter.  Instructions on a sticker located on the front flap instructed employees to go to the copy machine in the staff office and make 24 copies, so new checklists would be produced every six weeks.  As long as employees followed the system, we would never run out of checklists.  Which brings us to point number three...

4. The point of failure in people systems is... people.

If you have done a good job of making checklists that work and considering how they work in context of the other systems in your organization, then all you have to do is make sure people use the checklists.

Maybe you are laughing right now because, as a people manager, you know how hard it can be to get employees to do what they are "supposed" to do.

While I am a self-proclaimed human performance technologist, I don't claim to know all the secrets of behavior modification.  All I know is influencing human performance is tricky business.  Two ideas to keep in mind are:


People don't do what's expected; they do what is inspected.

(Adapted from a quote by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.)

If you build accountability into your systems (like requiring employees to turn in the restroom inspection checklists weekly and reviewing the results with your team on a regular basis), then the likelihood of them performing as expected will increase.


We are naturally inclined to take the path of least resistance, to choose the easiest option.

This is at the heart of all systems-tweaking.  It's the reason why making processes simple increases the likelihood of people following them.  We humans are not totally rational, and we don't always do the things that logically make the most sense to us.  We don't even do a great job of doing things we WANT to do.  (Have you ever wondered why you didn't follow through on that exercise plan even though you really wanted to?)

Making great checklists is one of the ways we mold our environment to make sure we follow through on the important things—by making it as easy as possible for employees to know how to access the checklists, follow them, and understand how they fit into interrelated systems.

Here's to doing what works!

What other practices do you have for building great checklists?  Do you agree with the practices that I suggest in this article?  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author Mark McKenna

Mark is the creator of Put Out the Fires. As a dad, husband, human performance technologist, and adventure-lover, he enjoys crafting stories and systems that enhance learning and life.

  • Kyle says:

    Wow! I love that this is not just a hypothetical checklist, but one from a real-life situation. I’m currently working on checklists in my business and this article was extremely helpful. Thanks!

    • Mark McKenna says:

      That’s great, Kyle! Even if all you do is write down, “Step One… Step Two… Step Three…,” checklists will make a big difference in your business. Glad to hear this was helpful.

  • >