The Power of the Humble Checklist

Last Updated Jul 10, 2008 3:44 PM EDT

The Power of the Humble ChecklistYou'd be amazed by how many plane crashes are the result of the aircraft running out of fuel -- one study has estimated the number at 10 percent since 2000.

A goodly number of those could have been easily avoided by a few cents worth of paper and a sharp #2 pencil. The same ingredients might save your career from crashing and burning some day.

As a former private pilot, I learned the importance of the simple pre-flight checklist. Making sure your plane is airworthy is not a difficult process -- it's about a 15 minute walkaround -- but there are many items to confirm: Are the flaps working in coordinated fashion? Are the tires properly inflated? Radio functioning? Electrical system? Navigation system?

Is the fuel tank full?

So news out of Harvard's School of Public Health caught my attention recently. It was announced that HSPH and the World Health Organization have co-developed a safe-surgery checklist to help medical teams make sure they are covering all the bases before, during, and after an operation. Like the pilot double checking there is gas in the tank, many items on the medical checklist seem obvious, such as "verbally confirm the patient's name, the site and the procedure."

But the point is, forgetting just one item in either flying or surgery can have deadly consequences. And checklists work. Hospitals that use them have increased adherence to these standards of care from 36% to 68% and in some hospitals to levels approaching 100%, according to the press release.

Check This Out Chances are you won't be performing surgery in your cube anytime soon, at least not with a scalpel. Can a checklist still help you do your job better?

I tend to put a list together anytime where I could take a very public crash and burn if I don't have all my ducks in a row. In this respect, I think a checklist is a little different from a To-Do list. To-Dos help you prioritize task with the most important items at the top. A checklist has no priorities -- everything is equally important.

Some examples.
  • The Important Presentation Do I have my most up-to-date slide deck? Is my memory stick working? Do I need extra business cards? What's the technology setup? What's my backup plan if I have a bad technology day?
  • Leading a Meeting Who am I inviting? Has everyone confirmed? Did I send out an agenda? What do I want accomplished? Who will record results? Who needs to be informed of the results?
  • Conducting a Performance Review Does the employee have all the review docs ahead of time? What is this employee's preferred communication style? How will I handle a possible emotional reaction? What follow-up administrative chores need to be looked after?
If I know I have fuel in the tank, I'm ready to fly.

Do you use checklists at work? Have you experienced situations where a checklist would have helped you avoid embarrassment?

Other resources:

Managing an Impossible To-Do List (BNET)

The Checklist (The New Yorker)
(Airplane checklist photo by cybrjoe , CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.

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