I was on my way to the market, shopping list in hand. “Honey, can you grab some lemons?” my wife called out as the door hit me on the bum. “Yep!” I shouted through the closed door. I hopped in my car, got to the store, whipped out my list, got everything on it, and headed home, feeling pretty darn proud of myself that I’d spent less than thirty minutes door-to-door.

I came in to kitchen, bags in hand, and began unpacking, my wife pitching in. She stopped suddenly. “No lemons?” she asked, eyebrows raised. Dread. I’d forgotten them. They weren’t on my list.

Silly story, right? Happens all the time, no big deal, right? Wrong. BIG deal.

We hear a lot about how to get things done. Not so much about getting things right. Imagine if I was a pilot or surgeon, and the “lemons” weren’t lemons at all, but a vital step in a complex life-endangering process, and left off the pre-flight check or surgical protocol.

What’s this have to do with creativity and innovation? A lot, actually. The role of a good standard is not limited to execution mode.

As a kaizen (continuous improvement) coach, I’ve come to know and understand just how crucial a simple checklist can be in the innovation process, irrespective of your work or business. In fact, kaizen itself is based on three steps: create a standard, follow it, and look for a better way. Rinse and repeat endlessly. And more often than not, the standard created is indeed a simple checklist.

My point: trying to improve and innovate without a standard as a reference is like a journey with no clear origin.

The Power of Standards

In areas like medicine, aviation, and product design, the checklist is vital. It can quite simply save lives. At the very least, it can make anyone far more effective and professional. Many professionals, though, take the view that a checklist is in someway limiting. They view their work as too complex and creative for a such a simple tool—which appears on the surface to be rigid, restrictive, and regimented—to have any usefulness in a demanding profession where every situation is different.

But that isn’t the case. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande found that surgeons who employed well-crafted standard surgical checklists saw double-digit improvement in their key performance metrics, like mortality and morbidity rates. The checklist proved to be an elegant solution to a host of medical problems.

And in the best design firms, the design process is standardized. But it’s not a paint-by-numbers approach. Rather, it’s high-level, modal, phase-driven, and allows individual style to enter into how the process is actually executed. (The goal of a standard can never be to eliminate personal style and creativity!)

I know of two very senior automotive designers who view design checklists and design briefs, both forms of standards, to be sacrosanct. The function and value of the design checklist is clear and compelling: get everyone on the same page. That’s important when you’re dealing with hundreds of designers and engineers coming together to pour over a prototype. It’s absolutely critical to meeting a required degree of quality with any sort of predictability. It’s vital to shortening overlapping development cycles, because the standard eliminates a lengthy “clean sheet” approach.

These designers refresh their lists and briefs at regular and frequent times, in part due to the nature of the business: facelifts come out every year, with major changes every few. There’s no chance for aging or going stale. The design standards are living, breathing instruments constantly changing, continuously updated and improved each time by the designer or engineer in the role. As a result, crucial information flows freely. Such standards enable the knowledge, mastery and creativity of the designer to be captured and shared.

A checklist functions like a compulsory routine, or kata, in martial arts. Basic movements are taught first, and they provide the very framework needed to improvise as needed. It’s like driving a car: there are certain guidelines in effect and certain actions every driver takes to operate a car, but beyond that you can drive in a direction that suits you and your specific situation.

Creating Good Standards

Creating a good standard, such as a checklist, while not complex, isn’t as easy as just jotting down some items in a column. It’s a bit more involved. (Which is another reason why checklists aren’t used more often…there’s work involved!)

So what makes a good standard? Whether it’s a pilot’s pre-flight checkl, a surgeon’s protocol, or a factory worker’s guide to parts assembly, there are two criteria:

Clarity. Assume an untrained eye will read it. Make it bullet-proof, specific, and complete, to capture the knowledge. Make it concrete and representative of the real world. Use pictures. Describe with precision the what, where, and how. That way, there’s no question of what constitutes a deviation or problem.

Consensus. Everyone who will employ the standard must agree on it. That forces a shared investigation to ensure that the standard represents the best known method or practice at that specific point in time. The activity in turn facilitates understanding.

Now, there are three basic steps required to deploy a standard:

1. Establish a Best Practice. Make sure it’s the best-known method. Get input and feedback from those doing the work. Get agreement on it.

2. Make it Visible. Accessibility is key. Hiding it in a drawer won’t work. Post it or publish it so everyone will constantly be aware of it.

3. Communicate. Inform everyone. Prepare and train people. Test it out. Monitor effectiveness and usage.

What happens if the standard isn’t followed? Investigate! Find out why. Is there a better method? Was training adequate? Are there special circumstances? Redesign it if you need to.

And keep searching for a better way. Like Edison said, “There’s a better way. Find it.”

Allergies to Standards

The thought of standards makes a lot of people cringe. That’s because they confuse standardization with uniformity. They think standards somehow discourage creativity and individuality. They perceive standards as control mechanisms to prevent individuals from performing the job in the manner they view as best. They see standards as restrictive and rigid, even oppressive.

The skepticism and cynicism stems from the fact that in many if not most organizations, standards are all those evil things. Most companies use central committees to develop standards. They use the words standard and edict interchangeably. They issue what is essentially a performance script and call it a standard. The standard is, in effect, permanent.

Developed and used properly, a standard is none of those things. A true standard is exactly opposite, in almost every way.

A true standard is simply an established best-known method or practice followed rigorously until a better way is discovered, tested, and accepted…by those actually doing the work. After all, who knows better? It’s actually a starting point, not the destination. It shows you where to begin the search for solutions.

Done right it lets you know where there’s a problem. It prevents mistakes from being made, and, even worse, made twice. It lets you capture and retain knowledge and expertise. It makes you more productive, accurate, and precise. It eliminates waste in the form of errors and rework.

And above all, it helps you stay safe. It would have saved my life, figuratively speaking, that day I went to market. (A happy wife is a happy life.)

So put your lemons on the list.