In his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, author Atul Gawande discusses two reasons why mistakes in our work can happen. First, because of ignorance: we simply don’t have the knowledge to do the work. Second, because of ineptitude: we have the knowledge but we fail to use it correctly.

It’s this second reason for failure that people find so infuriating. Think back to a recent mistake made at your company. Did it happen because the person in charge didn’t have the know-how or because he or she didn’t use what they knew? If you’re like many of the business owners with whom we work at Remodelers Advantage, mistakes are primarily due to ineptitude.

And it’s not because your employees don’t care. They do, but for some reason, they missed a step somewhere. No matter why it happened, the mistake was avoidable and, as Gawande points out, “Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating.” We all know this to be true.

There is a tool that can help us to stop making these avoidable mistakes: a checklist.

Nothing Overlooked

Gawande says that there are two major purposes to checklists: They supply a set of checks to ensure that the mundane but critical stuff is not overlooked, and they supply another check to ensure that people talk, coordinate, and accept responsibility.

A checklist is not intended to eliminate judgment, but it does get the dumb stuff out of the way, allowing your brain to rise above and focus on the difficult stuff.

How do you start? First, study past mistakes. Were they due to ignorance or ineptitude? If it was the latter, look for patterns — the same common mistakes being made over and over.

Checklist Success

What makes a great checklist? It is precise, efficient, easy-to-use, and to the point. It provides reminders of only the most critical and important steps — ones that even highly skilled professionals could miss.

Effective checklists also focus on what Gawande calls, “killer items” — the steps that are the most important but are sometimes missed anyway.

To help them run predictably and without mistakes, the best remodeling companies use dozens of checklists. Is there a special checklist that your company uses? Let me know.

—Victoria Downing is president of Remodelers Advantage, a national company that gives remodelers the tools to achieve consistent profitability and success through one-on-one consulting, the Roundtables peer program, and an online learning community, Advantage Associates. 301.490.5620;;