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26 Jan, 2010 – 8 comments

how to write a checklist

Yesterday I finished Atul Gawande’s inspiring book, The Checklist Manifesto – I know what you’re thinking, inspiring, checklist, these words do not belong in the same sentence.

Oh but they do.

Dr. Gawande walks through many examples of when checklists have saved hundreds of lives: from Captain Sully and the geese strike, to a checklist he helped create for the World Health Organization that increased survival rates among surgical procedures by 47%, to his own hospital and his own patients.

The book is a fast read. The first half lays the ground work for why checklists are so necessary and the latter half discusses the development of the author’s own checklist, the results from that experiment, and some exploration of why checklists are generally refused by experts even when they dramatically prove their own worth.

In fact, the book has all the reasoning behind a checklist, without actually providing direct instruction, for obvious reasons: the creation of a checklist is a labored process of identifying failures, considering the role of the checklist, then testing, refining, and further testing.

But after a bit of hunting, I did manage to find this checklist for checklists created by Dr. Atul Gawande, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Center for Surgery and Public Health Dissemination Team, and Dan Boorman of Boeing.

A few notes from the book in addition to the chart:

  • A checklist is not a set of instructions – the role of the checklist is to help identify and correct common and severe errors during a procedure
  • A checklist should be simple, measurable, and transmissible
  • A checklist manages actions AND communications between team members; one of the first steps in many checklists is for every member of the team to introduce themselves to the group to facilitate open conversation during a crisis
  • A checklist is either READ-DO or DO-CONFIRM; a READ-DO checklist is meant to be read aloud as actions are being performed, a DO-CONFIRM checklist is meant to be used before pause points to ensure all previous checklist items were taken or considered by the team
  • Often several checklists are needed for complex procedures – in these cases, it’s critical to identify pause points to start and stop checklists
  • Be explicit about who reads the checklist to the team – in aviation, this is the ‘pilot-not-flying,’ in medicine it is often a nurse; choose someone not directly in charge of the actions and afford this person the authority to intervene in the situation when called for
  • Test, re-test, and refine your checklist – measure its efficacy, look for items to cut, and areas to be more explicit

How do checklists written for the B17 bomber, cancer surgery, or investment funds relate to my work? Well, I work for some of the largest brands in the world that have created for themselves empires of complexity. Much of what I do is the study of process. And our own internal work is a series of procedures assessing complex systems – from the competitive landscape, to target research, budgeting, agency relations, and so on. One small routine error on our part can easily become a virulent infection once inserted into our client’s day to day operations.

It behooves us to try a checklist.

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  1. Justin Snyder
    Justin Snyder January 26, 2010 at 10:07 pm .

    Great post! Do you have any other reading recommendations on systems and processes, especially for small business?

  2. Eric Tabone
    Eric Tabone January 27, 2010 at 8:27 am .

    The greatest productivity software ever created are Notepad and TextEdit. It’s also why I’m such a lover of Action Method (though that is a more complicated checklist app, thus defeating its purpose to an extent).

  3. Jake P
    Jake P January 27, 2010 at 11:15 am .

    It’s interesting to me how checklists are usually associated with enterprises involving life-or-death and safety.

    Your point is a good one, that they can be useful far beyond those parameters. I’ve added Dr. G’s book to my Amazon wishlist.

  4. Ashira
    Ashira January 28, 2010 at 6:45 am .

    have you read _Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious_ by Gerd Gigerenzer? It may be a good counter to this book.

  5. boeing b 17
    boeing b 17 March 23, 2010 at 5:44 am .
  6. Rachel
    Rachel August 16, 2010 at 5:23 am .

    I use Goal Enforcer software for everything, for setting goals, creating checklists, controlling projects etc. You can switch your lists between mindmap, Gantt or timeline format, as well as a simple lists. I’ve always been a paper list maker but they get misplaced. It has helped me immensely focus and keep my lists in one place. I’m also putting this book on my Amazon list. Thanks!

  7. John
    John May 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm .

    Great post! I read the long New Yorker article and enjoyed that immensely. Now was looking for instructions to apply this to myself and my team. THANK YOU!!

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