iStock_000003453316XSmallOne of the best checklist makers in the world are airplane manufacturers. Pilots use dozens of checklists, whole books of them in fact. There’s a checklist for inspecting the aircraft before flight, one for configuring the airplane before you start the engines, then one to start the engines and so on. But, not everything a pilot does is done with a checklist. Airline pilots, and many corporate pilots use “flows.”

Flows are patterns a pilot follows as they move across the instrument panel. Although we’ve been talking checklists this week, don’t go “checklist happy,” and start creating one for everything as you’ll make yourself nuts. Decide strategically where you need a checklist – usually this is going to be where you have processes that you want predictable results and you know you will get them from doing the procedure the way you did it the last time.

Walking around Naval Air Station Pensacola and NAS Whiting Field you could always readily identify the flight students. They are the ones carrying a gigantic stack of index cards with their dozens of checklist and memory items written on them.

Good checklists should be:

  • Brief, to the point and easy to read  (Gawande 116)
  • Created by people who have an understanding of the job, not a desk jockey with no awareness of the situation in which the check list is to be used (Gawande 120)
  • Precise and easy to use even in the most difficult situations (Gawande 120)
  • They should not try to spell out everything, a checklist cannot fly a plane nor perform an surgical operation. They should provide reminders of the most critical and important steps even one’s highly skilled professionals could miss (Gawande 120).
  • They should be practical or they will be unused (Gawande 120)
  • The wording should be simple and exact and ideally fit on one page (Gawande 123)

There are two types of checklist, the DO-CONFIRM and the READ-DO. With a DO-CONFIRM checklist, everyone does their jobs from memory and experiences and then they pause to run the checklist and confirm everything was done the way it was supposed to be (Gawande 123), kind of like the pilot flows. With the READ-DO checklist people carry out the task and check them off as they do them. Which one works for you will depend on the context and the situation. Typically, for a pilot, an engine–out is a reason to run the DO-CONFIRM version early on just to keep the plane flying, then switch to the READ-DO after you’ve handled the initial steps.

Pilots live in a world where they will occasionally find out about the cause of a recent crash and then must incorporate new procedures to prevent the same thing from happening to the plane they are flying (Gawande 132). Updating the checklist is a way to get the word out and get the new procedure in place right away (Gawande 132). You can do the same thing in the workplace (don’t change it too often though if it can be avoided)

Pilots perform different tasks in the cockpit depending on who is flying the plane. Pilots keep this pretty simple. In a multi-crewed aircraft there is the “pilot flying,” and the “pilot not flying.” Dispersing the responsibility of running the checklist sends the message that everyone, not just the captain, is responsible for the overall safety of the flight and that everyone should have the power to question the decision-making process (Gawande 137). Incidentally, this type of group decision-making was virtually unheard of in the 1970s when the captain was seen as second only to God (unless you asked the captain in which case God was a second to him – and yes, it was almost always a him back then). This God complex got thousands of people killed in aviation for well over a decade.

And speaking of the team environment this is something else that has proven to be critically important to the success of virtually any endeavor  – things work out better when people get to know each other. In surgery, Gawande talks about the introduction of names and roles at the start of every operation. At first, this was opposed by many surgeons but after they started doing it they found people were more likely to call out a mistake or a missed step  (Gawande 1153).

Checklists, to a certain extent have taken away some of what author Tom Wolfe called “The Right Stuff.” Back in the age of Chuck Yeager and the test pilots featured in that movie a good 20 to 25% of them died test flying new aircraft (Gawande 161). Today however, when was the last time you heard of a test pilot dying? It almost never happens anymore. Even with the commercial space launch industry and even Red Bull daredevil Felix Baumgartner making his record 700 mph jump from the edge of space, was highly organized and check listed to the nth degree.

Checklists also helps in the financial community as Gawande points to examples where investors used a checklist to get through some of the analytical work and to not miss critical steps that can distinguish a bad investment from a good one (Gawande 172-173). Even Captain Chesley Sullenberger, of the US Airways into the Hudson flight, used checklists with his first officer Jeffrey Skiles, all while making as controlled descent as possible into the river. The ditching button was never depressed however, mainly because, while it was on the checklist, it wasn’t there until near the end. The checklist for ditching was designed with the thought the plane would be descending from 30,000-feet, not 3,000-feet. They just didn’t finish the checklist in time, but its likely that after the Hudson landing, that little item was pushed up a bit on the priority list.

No matter how routine an operation is, or a process, we’re hard pressed not to use a checklist to ensure its repeatable success. Take a look at the areas in your life where a checklist can help out. If they are good enough for pilots, surgeons and investment bankers, maybe they could help you out too.

Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.

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