Meetings: Make Them Time Well-Spent 

by Joel D. Levitt

MeetingTypical executives spend more than 20 percent of their time in meetings with five or more people. At the same time, surveys indicate that a majority of them are dissatisfied with the value and outcome of their meetings. There is a simple technique that takes only minutes (no pun intended) that can effortlessly eliminate some of the collisions, faux pas, cancellations, delays and other problems.

When asked, “What has disrupted your meetings in the past year?” executives report a number of culprits. These range from a previous meeting still running in the scheduled conference room to people not being prepared or the room itself not being prepared: The conference room is messy; there are not enough chairs or electric plugs; no paper in the easel and either no marking pens or the ones that are there are dried out; the lights, air conditioning and/or audio visual equipment don’t work; an old version of the presentation has been keyed up or the new one is supplied but won’t load; handouts were not prepared, were wrong or not enough were supplied; the agenda was not provided; time or location of the meeting was not clear; attendees were not prepared; or people critical to the meeting were not available. Noise from construction going on in a nearby space is another problem sometimes encountered.

Some of these items are extremely difficult to impact. But for many, there are preventive actions that could be taken. The problem is (and this is a problem common to all procedures) finding an effective way to remind the staff to go through all the steps. The solution is well-known in many settings: the checklist.

We all know that checklists are widely used in settings where the outcome is critical (aviation, power plants, medicine or military operations). What we might not know is that the use of checklists has been proven useful in widely different situations. In environments as diverse as production floors, day-care centers and even political campaigns, checklists play a prominent role.

The idea is simple: Design a meeting checklist and then distribute, post and use it. Here are a few tried and true simple rules to make the checklist work best:

  • The list should be on a single side of paper. Use a large font that is easy to read.
  • The most effective checklists are short and quickly completed. Many can be run through in less than a minute.
  • They typically contain seven to ten items.
  • Post them (some firms have the meeting checklist in every conference room). And use them!

A checklist is simply a reminder system. It typically consists of things that participants already know but might forget for a particular event. The checklist keeps the practices that make a successful event, such as a meeting, right there up front. That way, even if the responsible staff person is tired, has a headache or is preoccupied, no one will miss anything important.

Executives can also use the checklist to remind themselves of new ideas, techniques or practices they would like to try out.

The power of the checklist is in the execution. It has a positive effect only if it is used!

The items may be divided into sub-checklists in relation to timing of the meeting, such as checklists for the days before or after the meeting or immediately before, during or immediately after. In aviation, for example, each step in flying (preflight, landing, etc.) has a different checklist.

Whether for meetings or other purposes, it is important to keep the checklists as simple as possible. It is also important to remember that checklists are living documents. Let the checklists evolve and grow smarter over time by continually incorporating new issues and removing old issues that no longer occur.

Joel D. Levitt, whose books include 10 Minutes a Week to Great Meetings, has more than 30 years of management experience in the maintenance and engineering fields and is a leading trainer of manufacturing, operational and maintenance professionals. Since 1980, Levitt has been the president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm servicing clients of all sizes on a wide range of maintenance issues, and is currently the Director of International Projects at Life Cycle Engineering.

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