In week 4 of re-read of The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (use the link and buy a copy so you can read along) we tackle Chapter 3, The End Of The Master Builder.  In Chapter 3 Gawande identifies the scenarios in which checklists have an impact. Checklists provide value even in complicated scenarios.

Checklists provide a tool to improve memory, focus attention and ensure thoroughness when performing many activities.  When can a checklist be helpful? Gawande begins by laying out the premise that there are three kinds of problems: simple, complicated, and complex.  Cooking from a recipe is a simple problem. Sending Voyager out of the solar system was complex. Leading a board of directors is a complex problem. As noted in the re-read of Chapter 2, complex problems do not have repeatable outcomes.  Simple and complicated problems have repeatable outcomes.

The primary examples used in the chapter to drive home the point of how checklists are useful for improving the outcome of large complicated projects are building design and construction projects. Earlier this year, my wife and I toured La Sagrada Familia. La Sagrada Familia is a temple that was planned, designed and began construction in the 1860s by the master builder Antoni Gaudí.  A master builder, historically, was an individual who was responsible for both the design and the construction of a project. According to the website and our tour guide, the building is now 70% complete. Today, the role is spread across many building professions.  Each profession/specialty involved has its own interconnected set of plans which makes coordination difficult.  The need to coordinate and tweak the interactions between plans is a continuous process. One master builder cannot create and execute everything needed to build a large building in the 21st century.  

Checklists, act as forcing functions. Forcing functions navigate users into a situation where they take action only after consciously considering information.  This is like the L David Marquet’s concept of deliberate action (which we discussed in the previous re-read). Checklists are forcing functions that stop people from automatically talking the next step in a process without thinking. Any problem in which you need to think between steps is amenable to checklists (forcing functions) that that help guide necessary behavior and reduce the risk of failures of memory and consideration. Complex problems are not predictable and are outside the ability of a checklist to deal with. Note: even complex problems might have complicated components; the trick is to identify the part of the problem were a forcing function is useful.

Bought your copy?  If not use the following link and support the Dr. Gawande and podcast:  The Checklist Manifesto


Previous Installment:

Week 1 – Approach and Introduction

Week 2 – The Problem With Extreme Complexity

Week 3 – The Checklist