Why Even Experts and Professionals Should Use Checklists
Checklists can help remind busy people what they need to do. Even more importantly, they can prevent people from omitting essential steps in routine activities. In his popular book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, surgeon Atul Gawande points out how easy it is to make mistakes even when carrying out simple, familiar procedures—or maybe especially when carrying out such procedures.
Gawande is talking about experts, here, people who are highly skilled and experienced yet make serious mistakes. In his book he offers numerous examples of how simple checklists can help these professionals avoid tragic errors. For example, a checklist used at eight hospitals for carrying out the basic steps in surgery led to an amazing 35 percent reduction in deaths and complications.
Still, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that you don’t need a checklist for things that seem obvious and automatic. That was writer Paul B. Brown’s experience when his checklist for his weekend commute didn’t include “Put briefcase in car.” After all, that was something he did every weekend without even thinking—until, of course, the weekend when he didn’t. And so “Put briefcase in car” is now on his checklist. Clearly, it’s the very things that seem so automatic that they don’t require thinking that need to be on a checklist.
Still, people—especially professionals—tend to resist using checklists. Might this include you? Gawande speculates that for some, checklists amount to admitting to being fallible. Some people may also fear that consulting a checklist will slow them down. It’s not until a tragic error results from not using a checklist that they come around to seeing its value.
At the hospitals where Gawande did his suregery checklist trial period, 80 percent of surgeons involved became sold on the idea of checklists. The remaining 20 percent said they thought the checklists were a waste of time and didn’t add value. If you were having an operation, would you prefer a doctor who was one of the 80 percent who would keep using the checklist or one of the 20 percent who wouldn’t? Interestingly, when the surgeons who resisted continuing to use the checklist were asked if they’d want their own surgeon to use one if they were to have an operation, 94 percent said they would!
In project management and software development, checklists can be particularly helpful if you’re busy, rushed, or multitasking—or if your memory isn’t cranked up to its full efficiency. In fact, having checklists for routine aspects of your work can be liberating because lists spare you from having to remember mundane tasks, giving you the freedom to focus on more important things.
One particular boss believed that if project checklists were so great, anyone could be a project manager and no one would need any training. Do you agree? (I didn’t think so.)