Ingrained Excellence

How a simple check sheet can help you achieve operational excellence

by Derek Trott

Cultures of operational excellence are the culmination of once-conscious decisions that ultimately became part of an organization’s unconscious habit. A barrier to creating a culture of operational excellence is the anecdote.

We’ve all heard sweeping global statements such as “this happens frequently” or “they always produce this error.” Toxic without exploration and validation, the anecdote poisons an organization’s unconscious decision making if not corrected.

After identifying the anecdote, how do quality and management professionals start correcting the behavior immediately? Enter arguably one of simplest yet most powerful tools for turning the anecdote into data and fact: the check sheet.

For the non-data savvy, collecting data and turning it into actionable information can be a daunting tasking. The barriers to data literacy are only compounded by the ever-growing depth and complexity of data, the often-convoluted manners in which data can be accessed, and the need to ask yourself and the organization difficult questions.

For the non-data savvy, the anecdote assuages the personal anxiety of an identified risk or problem, but fails to challenge the organization to improve.

The next time someone tells you an anecdote about a business process, suggest that he or she use a check sheet. But use caution—how you suggest implementing a check sheet can be of greater importance than the data collected via the check sheet itself.

The employee responsible for the cheek sheet must feel that it supports his or her needs and that he or she isn’t personally at risk due to the defect or error being measured. Coach the employee or provide direct feedback to articulate why and how the check sheet should be used. Know your audience and use the feedback method that works best for the individual employee.

Keeping the check sheet as simple as possible is critical for compliance. For employees who rely on anecdotes, the process of implementing a data collection process can be intimidating. One way to keep this process simple is to put sticky notes on a cubicle wall or computer screen. The sticky notes should be positioned in the employee’s primary field of vision, which will help keep data collection top of mind.

During the data collection process, don’t underestimate the influence of positive and constructive feedback. People are emotionally driven; play to the psychological need to belong by complimenting employees when they use the check sheet correctly and redirecting when they don’t.

After the required data are collected, the employee who tallied the data must be shown how to use the data to induce change, which advances two skills that are critical in cultures of operational excellence:

First is how to collect and leverage simple-yet-effective data to catalyze change, which underscores the point that fact-based discussions don’t have to include extensive data collection processes and analysis. Second—and perhaps more important—is the advancement of soft skills that ultimately become part of the unconscious mind in a culture of operational excellence.

Never underestimate the power of the check sheet for producing simple yet powerful data in your search for operational excellence. The next time you hear an anecdote, grab a stack of sticky notes, coach the employee to use a check sheet and take the first step toward catalyzing change among employees who aren’t contributing meaningfully to the culture of operational excellence.


Duhigg, Charles, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House, 2014.

Wortman, Bill, Joe DeSimone, Frank Bensley, Mike Williams, Tom Pearson, Jay P. Patel and DuWayne R. Carlson, The Six Sigma Black Belt Primer, Quality Council of Indiana, 2014.

Derek Trott is the senior manager of demand planning at Prometric in Baltimore. He earned a master’s degree in psychology from Washington College in Chesterton, MD, and a certificate of advanced study in psychology from Loyola University in Baltimore. Trott is an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt and a member of ASQ.

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