The Power of Checklists

Frederick A. Miller Checklists have saved thousands of hospital patients. One of them may even have helped the Allies win the Second World War.

Those statements may seem exaggerated. But in his 2009 book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon and author Atul Gawande tracks how checklists have dramatically reduced human error and, today, enable us to leverage the impossibly complex knowledge that humans have amassed in the past few decades.

Gawande’s thesis, simply stated, is that we can’t keep all that knowledge in our heads any longer. In medicine, in engineering, in finance, even in organizations, our species has uncovered ever more knowledge to handle ever more complex situations. The knowledge and complexity are so great, in fact, that in the attempt to apply the knowledge we often forget the routine things—like ensuring there’s enough soap in an ICU to wash one’s hands. The result, as you might imagine, can be disastrous.

This is the value of the checklist: it frees us from having to remember the routine, so we can devote our full attention to the complexity that our brains are designed to grapple with. As Gawande notes, “A lesson is emerging: checklists seem able to defend anyone, even the experienced, against failure in many more tasks than we realized. They provide a kind of cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness.”

In the world of organizations, I see checklists as an ideal way to follow standard work. The whole point of standard work—loosely defined here as the most efficient and effective method currently known for performing a repetitive task—is to eliminate waste. With its origins in Lean Six Sigma, standard work provides an established, repeatable way to perform tasks. As a result, people no longer have to rethink their routines at each repetition; they simply complete the tasks according to standard work and devote their brainpower to unexpected or complex issues.

Still, not everyone will remember every step of standard work every time. Here is where a physical checklist, posted prominently, can come in: as a continual reminder to attend to the routine but essential details that make standard work as efficient and effective as it is.

Moreover, the benefits of checklists can extend well beyond processes. This is why we developed the Inclusive Meeting Norms as a checklist for more inclusive, more effective meetings, and the 4 Keys that Change EVERYTHING as a checklist for interactions in general. By practicing standard work and checklists in our human interactions, we will reduce waste, create a common language with which to communicate, increase our personal effectiveness, and get closer to Right First Time interactions.

Where could you use a checklist—in your own work life, in your team, throughout your organization—to ensure that everyone is focused where their brains are most needed to focus: on the complexities of the workplace? What pieces of your standard work would run more effectively through the use of checklists? How could you use checklists in your home life: packing for a trip, for instance, or keeping track of bills? Feel free to post your thinking here.