The Power of Checklists

In its more rudimentary form, a checklist is a set of tasks or goals to achieve in a given period of time. But in his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande explores how using a checklist with deliberate intent on a regular basis has much greater power than most people think is possible from an apparently simple artefact.

Much has been written on how effective using a checklist can actually be for our wellbeing. I readily use a checklist each week to keep track of the importance and/or urgent tasks I plan to accomplish by the week’s end. And as the literature outlines, I too feel a sense of accomplishment when I have completed these tasks and I can cross them off my list. I am sure you have felt that same satisfaction as well.

But the deeper idea of checklists that Atul explores is not this type of checklist commonly thought of. Yes, it is a clear set of tasks that can be verified as having been completed. But it is the consistent, constant and reliable implementation of the tasks in a list that delivers more dependable outcomes regardless of those implementing the tasks. It is this reliability and consistency that a well thought out and thorough checklist provides.

Atul’s draws on his background and expertise as a specialist surgeon and his work with the World Health Organisation to unpack how the development of checklists meant the differences – literally – between life and death for millions of people around the world. He outlines how the research into and the development of a clear set of tasks to inform critical checklists for different types of surgery (that respond to the contexts they are used in) has enabled more surgeons and health professionals around the world carry out surgery with much lower mortality rates and quicker recovery for patients. He also draws not only on his own experience, but clearly tells the story of how checklists enable us all to enjoy reliable, extremely safe air travel, as well as the criticality of effective checklists used in construction of both small and large scale projects. In fact, the more you think about it, the more you realise that checklists are actually used, or should be used, in many more contexts in our society than we realise.

The process Atul outlined in his book to develop these more powerful checklists includes:

  1. Investigating the processes currently used
  2. Getting very clear on the outcomes desired
  3. Simplifying the process as much as possible to its most critical elements – those things that when missed or not done well have the greatest impact
  4. Ensuring that the checklist could also be verified verbally, not only as a written tool (i.e. you could verbally check it off with someone else that things have or have not been done)
  5. Not long – so, the shorter (i.e. less than one page) they are, the quicker they can be verified as complete and the process carried out

If you find yourself repeating tasks or projects, either individually or with a group of others, then taking the time to develop your own checklist will pay big dividends for you and those you work/live with. Furthermore, if others need to carry out the same set of tasks, a checklist will ensure greater consistency and delivery of the outcomes for all involved.

Whilst I know I will still write my simple checklists (or task lists) for keeping track of the things I want to accomplish in a week or a month, I am thinking about how this approach can systemise work functions and processes so that aspects of my work and the work of those I lead can be captured and written down in a checklist that when used regularly, will deliver more powerful results.

What do you (or your organisations you work in) do that could be codified into a checklist for others to use?

You may also be interested in this short 15 minute interview with Atul, along with the transcript, conducted by Harvard Business Review.

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