The Checklist Manifesto

January 31, 2011 - by: Dan Oswald 1 COMMENTS

I had been thinking recently about the importance of a good “to do” list, so when I stumbled upon the Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. I decided it was fate and bought a copy. Now I must admit, I had not heard anything about the book despite the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller and had won “Best Book of the Month” from Amazon back in December 2009.

So I began to read assuming that my affection for “to do” lists was going to be confirmed. What I discovered was much more. Gawande may give a nod to the traditional “to do” list, but his checklists are a whole lot more. The checklists that Gawande advocates in his book are a concise list of standard operating procedures for any task, even some of the most complex imaginable.

Gawande tell stories about how the simple use of a checklist has had life-altering impact for airline pilots, hospital surgical teams, and building professionals. For instance, Gawande details how the complex task of building a skyscraper has been reduced to a series of checklists. And that even when the inevitable, unplanned variances occur, checklists can help better manage those exceptions as well.

By illustrating how checklists can benefit these immensely complex tasks, Gawande makes a strong case that all of us could gain from using them in our professional lives. In case after case, he demonstrates improved outcomes from the use of checklists.

Our lives are becoming increasingly complex. Professionally, technological advances have allowed us access to more information and better tools to do our job. The speed at which we gain information and process data continues to increase. But unless we can harness all of it in a meaningful way, it will go to waste. The checklists that Gawande advocates are designed to help professionals organize all of this data and better communicate with colleagues in order to maximize the outcomes of their efforts.

Gawande makes a distinction between errors of ignorance (mistakes we make because we don’t know enough) and errors of ineptitude (mistakes we made because we don’t make proper use of what we know). The checklists that Gawande argues for so effectively address the second of these errors. He repeatedly shows that in many professions the tasks have been so complicated that mistakes of ineptitude are almost inevitable.

This book is thought provoking. In reading it, I began to think about the various places in our business that a well-defined checklist could improve our operations. How many mistakes could be eliminated if we had checklists that helped us better perform some of our most routine tasks? What would the impact be on our outcomes? No matter what line of business you are in, there are countless routine processes for which you could use a checklist to improve results.

The Checklist Manifesto is certainly worth the few hours it takes to read it. I think you’ll find it to be, at the very least, thought provoking. And maybe you’ll discover that you could benefit greatly from the use of checklists in your work. Either way, I think you should check it out.

“A short pencil is better than a long memory.” ( Old pilot saying )

Dan Oswald is president of M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC and author of The Oswald Letter. Before coming to MLSP, he was president of Lawrence Ragan Communications, Inc. (1996 to 2003) marketing manager at Aspen Publishers, Inc., and a graduate of Westmar College.

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1 COMMENTS

1 ACU Frank
10:02:49, 02/02/11

At my current employer, excessive reliance on checklists and procedures has killed middle management’s ability to use independent judgment, hold employees accountable, and apply process improvements. I’m sure it’s all in the implementation, but our over-documented workplace is the top cultural issue I face in HR.

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