Book Cover

We have four or five more weeks left in this re-read, which means it is time to start soliciting ideas for the next book. Sandeep Koorse has suggested Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit  (actually he referenced the book twice in his appearance on the SPaMCAST 511 which will be coming out tomorrow). What are your suggestions?

In week 7 of re-read of The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (use the link and buy a copy so you can read along) we read about Atul’s visit to the Checklist Factory. In this chapter, Dr. Gawande provides the reader with many of the basics needed to create valuable checklists.


Chapter 6, The Checklist Factory

After failing the first time (see Chapter 5), Dr. Gawande did the research into what made aviation checklists useful. Spoiler alert, what he finds is that to be effective, checklists need to address big constraints — time and attention span. In aviation, even though checklists come in books the size of old-school telephone books, those books are actually many individual checklists for different scenarios. Each is long enough and not longer. There are checklists for normal scenarios (I have often walked past an open cockpit as I board a plane and see the flight crew checking things off the list) and there are checklists for non-normal scenarios (ask about the time my flight lost its hydraulics landing in New Orleans).

The author uses the example of a United Airlines 747 flying from San Francisco to Honolulu that lost its front cargo door at 25,000 feet. In case you are unaware of how dire this type of emergency is, recognize the 9 people died and the rest of the loaded plane was nearly lost. While there were many possible courses of action the pilots can take in this scenario, there is only one that has the highest possibility of survival with the least amount of pain on board. There is a short checklist that augments the training and skills pilots possess to get maximize survivability. In the text, Gawande uses the cockpit transcripts to highlight how the flight crew used the checklists to respond to a cascade of failures in a scenario where seconds (or even less) can make the difference between life and death.

The example aside, the punchline is that pilots use checklists rather than their initial instincts because they have found them to be useful in both in good times and bad. Creating a checklist is more than mapping a process and writing down the steps. There are numerous kinds of checklists (Gawande references two types in the text: do-confirm and read-do). Creating a process includes understanding the process, cutting out the parts that training would ensure no one would overlook, making sure it is short, and then testing and refining the checklist. Consider mining the text on page 123 for a list of guidelines to consider when building a checklist (not to be meta, but you could easily extract a checklist for checklists).

There are several other takeaways in this chapter.  For example, the idea that natural pause points in a process are points to trigger the use of checklists. Another is that after 60 – 90 seconds at a pause point people get antsy and the checklist becomes a distraction (this is what happened when Gawande used his checklist in Chapter 5). A third is that when you are designing a checklist, only include the essential steps. In the 747 mentioned earlier, just having the essential steps meant that briefing the flight attendants or calling the control tower were not on the list. Training ensures that those steps happen organically without having to clutter a checklist. As someone that works with very highly trained professionals on a daily basis, I can attest that if you treat them like a brainless robot, they will not listen to your advice.

Checklists allow us to turn information into a simple usable form. Feedback loops that incorporate learning from both successes and failures in a systematic manner to increase the power of checklists.

Reader note:  This chapter can be read as an essay on basic checklist theory or as a primer on how to create checklists.  Start by reading the chapter for the theory. The theory gives the reader an understanding of why checklists work and help the reader to interpret the purely tactical steps.  The read the chapter for the tactical steps.


Previous Installments:

Week 6 – The First Try

Week 5 – The Idea

Week 4 – The End Of The Master Builder

Week 3 – The Checklist

Week 2 – The Problem With Extreme Complexity

Week 1 – Approach and Introduction