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How to Get Things Right? Checklists.

Debra Sunohara

It all started when I promised my kids that I would take them on their first "real" camping trip - tent, Coleman stove and all (not the cushy motor-home experience they were accustomed to). My son actually thought that we could just pick up a few things and go. In an instant my mind flew from checklist, to RACI, to WBS… and then settled right back on checklist.  I explained to him that we needed to start by doing some careful planning to create the ultimate camping checklists; one for the equipment and supplies we would still need to purchase, a packing list, a grocery list, and so on.  And then my son confessed, "I never make lists...why would I do that?"

glazomania  - An unusual fascination or obsession with lists.

Checklist manifesto-160x243A quick Google later, I not only proved to him that you could find some great camping checklists on-line, but to my delight I also stumbled across New York Times’ Freakonomics Blog review of The Checklist Manifesto by The New York Times bestselling author Atul Gawande.

Steven Levitt, who professed to have had an aversion to checklists, admitted that after having read Gawande's book he had started using this simple yet powerful project management tool. The book had in fact, "honestly changed the way I think about the world."

The glazomaniac in me was quick to pick up a copy at my local Chapters, and I was definitely not disappointed.

Checklists save lives

The Checklist Manifesto is an easy, engaging, and quick read.  Gawande nimbly guides us through his assessment of the 3 basic types of problems that exist;

  • Simple
  • Complicated
  • Complex

Hand notes small-250x329He provides practical examples of each from different industries and professions such as emergency medicine and surgery, aviation, and construction; and is able to analyse how simple, complex and complicated problems are solved using checklists.

Yes, even the coordination involved in building a high-rise that won't fall down can be achieved using a form of checklist - schedules and Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) are simply more complex forms of a checklist. He also cites statistics which point to staggering reductions of surgery related deaths and complications in hospitals world-wide as a result of implementing a brief checklist.

Now that is process improvement!

Checklists build in quality

More importantly, Gawande's discussion reveals just how powerful checklists can be.  Checklists provide improvement by incorporating lessons-learned into procedures, and they build quality into just about any profession - regardless of the degree of specialization.

I would agree with the author, and go even a step further; I propose that checklists can and should be used for anything and everything. You may argue that I am obviously obsessed with lists, and that may be true, but many others are as well - and for good reasons.

Life is better for list makers!

According to a 2006 survey on

  • 77% of list-makers spent more time accomplishing list tasks then making lists
  • 86% said that lists make them more productive
  • 96% said life is better with to-do lists
  • 28% admitted to being obsessive list-makers!

Plan – Do – Check – Act

If you are now considering making a checklist, remember that Atul Gawande highlights two aspects of checklists that should always be taken into consideration:

1.  Successful checklists are typically short and simple.

  • checklists should consist of 5 – 9 points and fit on one page

2.  Checklists need to be continually tested to validate that they are working effectively.

  • Plan - Create Checklist200px-pdca cycle-200x136
  • Do - Perform Tasks
  • Check - Check off Performed Tasks
  • Act - Revise Checklist

If this blog results in swaying at least a few people resistant to checklists, then its purpose will have been achieved.  They will take a step towards building some simple project management into their everyday work habits.  (and they will begin their own journey to glazomania!)

What kind of checklists have you implemented in your work and found useful?

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About this Article

Posted by Debra Sunohara
Posted on October 1, 2010

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Categories: lessons learned, productivity, project management