Lockdown was heaven for our cat. Human can-openers available 24/7 to dish out food on demand – bliss! No matter how much we stocked up on cat food, we kept running out. It wasn’t until our sleek and elegant cat took on blimp-like proportions that we realised she was constantly double- or even triple-dipping.
A simple checklist on the fridge door solved the problem. We now tick a checkbox for each of the cat’s meal times on a weekly chart. When all attempts at persuading us that she was starving failed, our cat eventually gave up her bludging and morphed back into her former slender self.
Checklists save lives
While our checklist merely saved a greedy cat from obesity, checklists can save lives, as Atul Gawande describes so compellingly in his book Checklist Manifesto. In hospitals, checklists reduce medical mishaps and errors. Checklists are also widely used in aviation. Famously, after the emergency plane landing on the Hudson River, Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger downplayed his skills as a pilot and said that he and his crew had saved the lives of all 155 people on board by following a series of checklists: Emergency, communications, evacuation and passenger checklists.
Why do checklists work so well? They –
- reduce cognitive load, freeing up the mind to focus on doing rather than remembering
- ensure people do everything that needs to be done in the right order, especially when under pressure
- create consistent, repeatable results, and
- document compliance and create an audit trail.
When to use checklists
Checklists work best for standardised, linear processes and procedures. They are highly effective if a series of tasks is too long to be memorised, omission of steps creates risks, or people are frequently interrupted while completing tasks.
But don’t confuse ‘standardised and linear’ with simple or low-level tasks. As the examples from medical care and aviation in the Checklist Manifesto show, checklists help with the most complicated tasks – but the checklists themselves must be short and straightforward to work. They must include only the critical ‘killer’ steps and be incorporated into the workflow at natural ‘pause’ points in the process.
Checklists can even support decision-making in complex environments with many variants, unknown or unique factors, although they may not look like the typical list of tick-box items. Instead, a diagram with a high-level framework of critical factors to consider, a flowchart or a decision tree can serve a similar purpose.
Part of good process design
Checklists must be built into a well-designed process or procedure from the start. If they are grafted on as an afterthought, they will not be used or become an expensive overhead.
So keep the humble checklist in mind when designing or reviewing a business process. It may well be an amazingly simple and cost-effective tool to improve operational efficiency.
- Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto. How to Get Things Right (2009).
- A short video summary of the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (6 mins)
- Video of Atul Gawande’s presentation to Microsoft (60 mins)