Book Cover

We have two-ish weeks left in this re-read, which means it is time for the poll. I have added the second and third place finishers from the last go around to sweeten the pot.  Please let me know what you’d like to see in the next Re-Read segment. 

This week we tackle Chapter 8, titled The Hero In The Age of Checklists.  Heroes are a big deal; pick up any newspaper and you will see how much the cult of hero is celebrated.  Checklists and methods are viewed by many as diminishing the role of the hero, which sows the seeds of resistance to change.  What role does the hero play in a disciplined process? If the hero is core to how we view ourselves and our society, do tools like checklists run the risk of being met with hostility?  Chapter 8 dives directly into the deep end to address these topics.

The chapter opens with the idea that even the most expert among us can gain from searching out the patterns of mistakes and failures and then putting checks in place to avoid those failures. In the software industry, terms like “inspect and adapt”, retrospectives, post-action reports, and process improvement are ingrained in our lexicon regardless of the method we follow. Checklists reduce risk, (Gawande uses the term ‘danger’) with reduces the possibility that any specific issue will happen which reduces the need for heroes to ride to the rescue. Even though the goal of checklists are to avoid the avoidable so time and energy can be applied to the unique or unavoidable issues, the cult of the hero has never been erased and at times it adopting simple fixes like checklists are viewed impinging on the hero’s role.  As a baseball aficionado, I am always amazed when the outfielder that always plays the ball perfectly is viewed as not as great as the player that chronically starts by misreading the ball but can recover and looks spectacular.

Gawande suggests that even though checklists are highly effective they are rarely embraced with open arms. The author makes the observation, as a reminder, that just checking the boxes on a checklist is not the ultimate goal, but rather checklist should create a culture of teamwork, communication, and discipline.  Checklists are a tool to change mindset (Note: I see a linkage in Gawande’s work and Carol Dweck’s Mindset in this chapter).

The whole idea of the person who always miss plays the ball in baseball but gets there and look spectacular versus the person who always plays it perfectly and looks like it is just so easy.

As a surgeon, the many of the examples in the book are medical.  In this chapter, Gawande turns to the world of high finance highlighting investors that look at both their mistakes and the mistakes of others and then use checklists as a method for not making the same mistake.  One of the great quotes in this chapter was, “49 times out of 50 there’s nothing to be found, but then there is.” Checklists are not formulas but rather a tool to ensure that critical information is gathered to make disciplined decisions. On page 170, Gawande references the dissertation of Geoff Smart.  The work, which is an interesting read in its own right, breaks venture capitalists down into groups based on the decision-making style. The “airline captain” is very similar to the checklist driven financiers Gawande uses in this chapter.  The data suggests that the “airline captain” approach shows the best long-term level of success. I certainly hope my fund managers are not flying by the seat of the pants; however, even thought checklists deliver better decisions, just like in medicine, checklists have been slow to be adopted. The summary to the resistance section is that we’re not lazy (one reason people ascribe to why checklists are not used) but rather there’s something more basic, we resist because we do not want to lose the chance to be a hero.

That said, I suggest that you read page 177 several times.  There are several critical ideas on the page, but the most important is that checklists let us take care of the mundane stuff that we shouldn’t have to really think hard about because they are common and lets us focus on the really hard stuff.  Gawande drives the point home using the story of Sully Sullenberger, who was the captain of the airliner that ditched in the Hudson River (Hero of the Hudson). Captain Sullenberger and the evidence tell a story that was more than heroism alone but rather teamwork, professionalism, and CHECKLISTS. In order for there to be a Hero of the Hudson lots of procedures and training had to happen in the right order and by the right people or everyone would have been dead.

The chapter ends with a discussion of professionalism, I am going to save the most of this for a more thorough discussion later. However, one point is important to the use of checklists.  Aviators, like Captian Sullenberger, list discipline as one of the key elements of professionalism. Discipline and checklists are strongly related which is why heroism and checklist have found a way to co-exist in the the aviation profession.   

The author ends the chapter with the quote “try a checklist.” Maybe his admonition should include adding discipline to your definition of professionalism.

Remember to buy a copy of The Checklist Manifesto and READ along!

Previous Installments:

Week 8 – The Fix –

Week 7 – The Checklist Factory

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