Checking Off Progress

Sometimes the simplest things simply aren’t, well, simple. Take checklists. We use them every day to plan our activities for the day or the week or longer. Where will you be in five years? Here’s a list of goals. Now go get ‘em.

Yet checklists can suffer from repetition, becoming background music we don’t hear because we tune out in favor of the newest sound. That’s the danger of reducing important points to lists.

But a podcast I heard recently convinced me that the benefits of checklists greatly outweigh the potential pitfalls.

These points jumped out at me:

  •  The creation of a checklist combats hubris and forces one to recognize limitations. I want to do X but I can’t because of Y. Well, maybe I should be realistic and do Z instead.
  •  A checklist isn’t an end unto itself, but a supplement to thinking and a tool to focus. It’s not carved in stone; it’s interactive and motivational. It can be a starting point.
  •  If you think through all the variables that can arise in a given situation – flying a plane, for example–and list useful responses, you can prepare for the unexpected. You can cope with or even avoid emergencies.

Dr. Atul Gawande, in his book, The Checklist Manifesto, took a close look at the mid-1930s crash of the Boeing 299, nicknamed “The Flying Fortress.” Planes hadn’t been around very long but they were already getting frighteningly complicated. An innovation moved the elevator lock from the outside to the inside of the plane. The crew didn’t see the lock in the usual place and forgot about it. Two experienced pilots, who relied on their expertise and failed to check the locks themselves, died in the crash.

The military responded by devising a list of seemingly obvious and routine pre-flight practices, like checking to make sure the locks have been locked. To get pilots and crews to actually use the checklist, they employed such things as training simulations and voice transcripts of pilots who winged it and lived to regret an oversight – or didn’t.

Boeing added a dash of patriotism for reinforcement, renamed the plane the B-17, and branded it as the aircraft of the best and the brightest. Their pilots came to rely on the checklist for their own safety and that of their passengers.

So, go ahead, work on your to-do list.