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How to Implement Management by Checklist with follow-up in your Restaurants

Pilot flying with checklistManagement by checklist is exactly what you think it is; it is the art of managing your restaurants by using short, focused checklists to ensure that the most important operational details aren’t missed on a shift-by-shift restaurant-by-restaurant basis.  The practice is modeled after airplane pilots and their use of checklists.

Checklists work, plain and simple.  We recently surveyed over 100 restaurant owners and managers.  We asked the question; do you think that you could save money and serve safer food if you used checklists?  They all said yes, 100% yes.

There is a great book out about checklists, The Checklist Manifesto; the book discusses how checklists are driving better operations and protecting professionals from failures across multiple industries.  Here are some quotes from the Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande

Here, then, is our situation at the start of the twenty-first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. And, with it, they have indeed accomplished extraordinary things. Nonetheless, that know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields—from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

In a complex environment, experts are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily over-looked under the strain of more pressing events.

Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

Good checklists, on the other hand are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything–a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps–the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.

First there was the recipe – the most basic checklist of all.  Every dish had one.  The recipes were typed out, put in clear plastic sleeves, and placed at each station.  Adams was religious about her staff’s using them.  Even for her, she said, “following the recipe is essential to making food of consistent quality oover time.”

If you have been working in restaurants, especially chain restaurants, then you know all about checklists.  The restaurant industry has simultaneously embraced and turned our backs on checklists.  When a typical employee or manager gets trained to work in a restaurant, especially at a training restaurant, a large part of their training is checklists.  Op’s manuals are full of checklists.  Checklists help boost productivity because they take away the guesswork from running the restaurant.  We’ve seen huge managerial productivity gains when new managers are given checklists and systems to follow during their training period. They are able to be effective faster and they learn quicker.

Then once our training is done and the manager gets to their home restaurant, we stop using them or even worse, we allow our teams to pencil whip them.  We recently asked restaurant managers and owners how many of them thought their teams were doing their checklists accurately? 94% of them thought their teams were pencil whipping.

Pencil whipping a checklist is worse than not doing it at all for several reasons.

  1. Checklists help drive better operations; better operations lead to great guest experiences, great guest experiences lead to sales increases of 5 to 9%.  Pencil Whipped checklists don’t do any of these things!!!
  2. You see a completed checklist, and you believe that the checklist is accurate, and you base decisions off of it.  Ex:  All of our temperatures are safe, so I don’t have to take any corrective action.
  3. You are paying someone to lie to you on paper when you knowingly allow them to pencil whip.
  4. If you are doing temp logs and line checks, it is this safety documentation that you will use to prove to the health department and the insurance company that you have systems in place, if you ever get someone sick.  If they talk to your employees, and they will, and determine that your checklists are not accurate y0u are personally incurring a ton of liability, and there is a good chance that your insurance carrier won’t pay out any claims.

There are two types of checklists that you should be employing in your restaurant and they have different benefits:

  • Safety Checklists:
    • Temperature Logs:  logging all cold and hot hold temperatures several times a day to ensure safety
    • Sanitation Checks:  checking sanitizer buckets, dishwashers, chemical concentrations, cross contamination, unsafe food handling processes, proper labeling and storage
    • Line Checks:  temping, tasting, checking labels, portion controls, and safety
  • Management Checklists:
    • Manager flight plans:  manager daily tasks that need to be completed
    • Opening/Closing Procedures: making sure restaurant is ready
    • FOH/BOH readiness checks:

Safety checklists ensure that you are operating safely and should prevent any critical violations on health inspections.  Conducting daily safety checks are our biggest moral responsibility to our guests and the most important thing we can do from a brand protection standpoint.  Temp logs and sanitation checks aren’t sexy but they are so important.  Line checks, especially when you are tasting food items do have a positive effect on profitability, they allow you to catch your own mistakes before your guests do and reduce food comps.  We have seen our clients reduce food costs by 1/2 to 2% based on the type of restaurant.

Management checklists drive better operations on a restaurant-by-restaurant shift-by-shift basis.  They protect managers from memory failures especially when they are putting out fires.  They make it easier for junior managers to learn faster and reduce training time.  Restaurants that use management checklists to focus managers on what is most important create better guest experiences and drive sales increases.

Here are some steps to creating a Management by checklist system.  1st you build the checklists, you should have safety and management checklists.  Once that is completed you can implement the follow-up system.

  1. Break down your restaurants day into smaller parts:
    1. Opening
    2. Prep
    3. 1st Service
    4. Mid Shift
    5. 2nd Service
    6. Closing
  2. Break down each of those time periods into the responsibilities for the front and back of the house teams.
    1. Prep cooks
    2. Kitchen Readiness
    3. Server stations
    4. Dining Room
    5. Manager/Kitchen Manager
  3. You can either detail every item that needs to get done to set-up an area or you can group like items together.  In my opinion, because of the turnover in the restaurant industry, I would go with every item checklists for line employees and more summarized checklists for managers and senior personnel.  This way your checklists can be used as a continuous training tool and as a checklist.  Here are some examples of the different types of questions:
    1. Every Item:
      1. Grab prep list and review.
      2. Set -up 3 compartment sink, put 1 cap full of soap in sink 1, push sanitizer button for sink…
    2. Summary:
      1. Confirm that server station is set-up and ready for service.
      2. Make sure dining room tables are set and all condiments are put out.
  4. Prioritize the most important areas of your business and start there.
    1. Shorter is better; you don’t win any prizes for having unnecessarily long checklists.  Just the most important items and nothing more.
    2. Don’t be so focused on getting the checklists perfect before releasing them to the team; you will never know until people use them.
    3. Start by putting everything you can think of down and then remove items that you don’t need over time.
    4. It is better to have something that is good than to wait to have something that is slightly better.
    5. Checklists are iterative in nature and will evolve over time and as you business changes.
  5. The most important part of Management by Checklist is the follow-up.
    1. There is a pencil whipping problem in our industry.
    2. Paper checklists Suck
    3. Paper checklists don’t provide you with any accountability: you don’t know when they were started and when they were finished.  You may not know who did them.  They are incredibly easy to pencil whip.
    4. You need to use a system to complete your checklists that will allow you to hold your team accountable and provide you with the visibility to effortlessly follow-up with team members.  Click here to see how the OpsAnalitica Inspector can do those things.
  6. Start slow with a couple of checklists and then add more over time.
    1. Realize that doing checklists correctly can take time so staff accordingly and give people extra time so they aren’t rushed.
    2. Explain the “Why” behind doing checklists and ensure your team knows that these checklists are tools for them and you.
    3. Make sure they don’t think that you are punishing them or think that they aren’t doing a good job.
      1. A pilot that is 60 years old with tens of thousands of flying hours uses checklists to start the engines on a plane, every time.  Your line cook can use one to determine that they are prepped and safe for the shift.
  7. Staff push-back
    1. You are going to get a little push back from your team.
      1. You are asking them to do more work
      2. You are holding them more accountable to doing things correctly
      3. You are asking them to change
    2. You have to do what is right for the restaurant and running safer and better operations is always right.  If your team can’t see that, then they may not be the right team for you.
    3. Heaven forbid something bad happens at one of your restaurants, your team is going to leave and go to work for a competitor , and you are going to be left dealing with the devastating fallout.  Do the right thing for yourself and your business.

What are the benefits of managing by checklist with follow-up:

  • More consistent operations
    • One of the most frustrating aspects of managing restaurants is that the restaurant runs great for one manager and runs ok for another manager.
    • Inconsistent operations are Russian Roulette for your guests; they come in on a Friday when the A team is working and have a great experience, and they come in for a Sunday lunch and are disappointed.
  • Better Operations
    • Focusing your team on the most important aspects of running a great restaurant every shift will improve restaurant operations.
    • Completing the checklists helps you catch your mistakes before your guests do, this will lower food comps.
    • Better operations increase sales.
  • Great management tool
    • On a day when everything is calm and going to plan the checklist may feel redundant or like a waste of time, but they aren’t because they drive consistency of management, and they remind managers of what they have to do.
      • People like to do certain things and don’t like to do others.  Each manager thinks some things are more important than others based on their upbringing, personal experience, and pet peeves.
      • If everyone opens the restaurant slightly different or pays more attention to one thing or another than you get inconsistent operations and your team doesn’t know what to focus on.
    • The idea behind checklists is that you check the items off on the list, but you should be looking at everything else.
    • You have to change your team’s minds about checklists, don’t look at them as a burden but be happy that you don’t have to work from memory, you can free your mind, and use the checklist to guide your actions.  It will make you a happier and more creative manager.  A checklist is like adding extra RAM to your brain.
  • Faster training and onboarding
    • When you have a checklist management system in place, it is much easier to onboard and train new team members.
    • They can work autonomously faster because they are following the same checklists that you use every day.
  • Systemizing your restaurant allows you to grow faster and to repeat your success in more locations.
    • So many managers and owners want to grow to that second location, but they have a hard time because they have never systematized their businesses.
    • Because of that they have a hard time recreating the success of their first location at their second location, and as their time and attention move to the new location, the first location starts to have issues.
    • If you want to grow to multiple locations you have to invest in systems first.

The disconnect in the industry is this, 100% of restaurant managers and owners believe that checklists will help them run better restaurants.  88% of those same owners used paper checklists.  94% of them believed that their teams weren’t completing them accurately.  The issues is paper checklists suck at holding people accountable.  You don’t know when they started or finished their checklist.  You don’t even know who really completed them.

Follow-up is the key to a management by checklist system and running better operations.  Being able to see that a checklist was completed on time before service started and then to be able to quickly determine what the issues were and address them is how you ensure checklists are getting done and that you are running safe operations.    If you aren’t in the restaurant, you can’t see that the checklist was even completed or get a look at any of the data on the checklist.  You need to use a system like OpsAnalitica to effortlessly conduct checklist follow-up and drive pencil whipping out of your operations.

Ultimately, great restaurant operations are the only way to sustainably grow your business.  Management by Checklist with follow-up can and will play a huge part in driving those better operations.  We can help you with the follow-up piece, to watch our OpsAnalitica demo video click here.

Written by

I've been in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life. I have a BSBA from University of Denver Hotel Restaurant school and an MBA from the same. When I wasn't working in restaurants I was either doing stand-up comedy, for 10 years, or large enterprise software consulting. I'm currently the Managing Director of OpsAnalitica and our Inspector platform was originally conceived when I worked for one of the largest sandwich franchisors in the country. You can reach out to me through LinkedIn.