30 things #3 We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the humble checklist

After reading Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto I will never look at checklists the same way again. Not only are they deceptively simple ways of codifying knowledge in an organisation, they also provide a focus for keeping that knowledge up to date. Checklists – written guides that walk us through the main steps in a complex procedure – are so familiar we can easily overlook just how powerful they are. Checklists draw together experience and knowledge and make it available to others in an easily digestible format. If a checklist is created as a group exercise it also helps those involved focus on what is really important and share the fruits of their experience – a way of both codifying knowledge and connecting people. In complex high pressure environments, checklists can prevent us from overlooking routine matters that we would normally remember. They can also help us to avoid skipping important actions because we may mistakenly believe them to be non-critical. That’s why checklists are used in pre-flight preparations in every aircraft cockpit in the world.

We tend to think of checklists as only suitable for highly routinised work settings but experience shows that checklists work well even in complex working environments because they can help us maintain an effective balance between professional autonomy and organisational requirements. As Atul Gawande suggests “Under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgement, but judgement aided – and even enhanced – by procedure.”

The Checklist Manifesto provides lots of useful hints for devising checklists and, importantly, keeping them up-to-date. An interesting distinction is made between READ-AND-DO checklist items (where you read the item and then carry out what is specified), and CHECK-ONCE-DONE (where you confirm you’ve carried out the specified action). Whatever way is used to construct a checklist, they work because they can help people to apply the knowledge and expertise gained in their organisation (and beyond) consistently well. And providing they are used and regularly updated in the light of new experience and knowledge, the better they become.